Alumnus Jorge Uribe ’66 Commencement Address

Alumnus Jorge Uribe ’60 delivered an eloquent, erudite, and thought-provoking commencement address to the graduating class of 2017.  The entire community was inspired to challenge contemporary thinking and remain healthily skeptical of political correctness, homogeneity, diversity, and their preselected news feeds and products!

2017 Commencement Address

I will today note some events that have recently have been reported in the serious press. Consider these three items, from many that could be cited:

Earlier this year, The Economist discussed that technology now enables every seller of goods or services on the planet to find a consumer for the product or service. But, it also makes it next to impossible for the consumer to find the product or service.
There is small limit to the supply of choices, but consumers’ awareness of them, and of how to find them, is constrained by time and volume. Overwhelmed by the abundance of choice, consumers favor whatever they find at the top of their search results. Recommendation algorithms steer consumers to what others consumers have bought. Consumers are pushed to what is popular, not to exploring the available assortment for the optimal thing.

The result is not selling some more, of more of more, but selling a lot more, of less and less.

There are groups of undergraduates, tolerated at many colleges in the United States, who demand, in the words of an article in The Atlantic of September 2015, that, “campuses be scrubbed clean of words, ideas and subjects that might cause discomfort or give offense.” The words, ideas and subjects are not offensive in se, but rather, in personam: what one person finds offensive, another does not. These are called “Microaggressions” and “Trigger Warnings”. These groups simply do not wish to hear, or even to overhear, such words, ideas or subjects. Persons invited by the institution are prevented from speaking.

In June 2016, Facebook announced a change to its newsfeed. Henceforth it would reset the way stories were ranked to ensure that people saw “the stories they find most meaningful”. What does “most meaningful” mean? It means that the newsfeed should be “subjective, personal and unique, to give users the most personalized experience”.

So, is this of concern?

In lectures presented in 1940, the philosopher José Ortega y Gasset reflected that everything that makes up our civilizations and cultures is the product of human intellectual effort. He examined by what mechanism the vast complexity and richness of our world –in mathematics, science, art, technology, literature, medicine, and so on and on— had come about.

Ortega developed a matrix in which human thought was comprised of ideas and what I will call knowns. (The word Ortega used –creencias— translates usually to beliefs, but as he used it, it lacks the overtones of piety often associated with the word in English.)

Ideas are guesses of the human intellect, powered by imagination, (which Ortega called the “principal organ” of the intellect). Ideas create a picture, or image, to describe, to examine, or to enhance some aspect of a human’s exterior or interior world.

When the human needs to deal with something in his exterior, physical world, or in his interior, psychic world, something that is new, novel or uncertain, he thinks. The imagination takes a guess, or frames a hypothesis, or is inspired, or has a dream: the intellect then forms an idea regarding that something.

The human then tests the idea, to determine whether it works for its intended purpose.

  • Does it usefully describe the physical reality about which there was uncertainty?
  • Does it make the music he wished to intone?
  • Does the poem work?
  • Does it calm the anxiety?

If it does, then the idea becomes a known, and the human need not think specifically about it anymore —-no more intellectual effort about it is required: The concerto is finished. The sculpture is done. The light bulb shines. The rocket went into orbit.

Through the ages, humans have generated a lot of ideas, many wrong, and many sufficiently correct that they became our knowns, and these knowns, cumulatively, constitute our knowledge; but all of it began as a conjecture, a guess, an inspiration, surging from the imagination. All of it was a product of skepticism, of questioning, of refining, of rethinking. History is the record of these errors, and of the successes. But: Only the errors are certain:

Aristotle had the idea that force causes motion. The idea was tested; it was found to work to describe the observed physical reality; it became a known, and remained a known for 2000 years, until Galileo grew skeptical: “Hummm, does it, really?” He wondered, rethought, had different idea, and Aristotle’s 2000-year, settled known . . . became an error. For the last 400 years or so, we have Galileo’s inertia, the new known.

Similar examples of errors, and of their correction, exist in all fields of endeavor: Everything that goes up no longer must come down. Western art can be abstract. Divine right to rule is not the rule. Bad humors do not cause disease. Phlogiston is not released during combustion.

Error is important because we absolutely know that that error does not work, whereas the known that we accept at any time must remain forever subject to challenge, reassertion, reinterpretation and reproof. Humans fashion science, philosophy, literature, music, art, because they are uncertain about matters that interest them, or because they wish to expand what they know about them (which is the same thing). Knowledge is born from uncertainty and doubt, and knowledge preserves that quality of constantly doubting its own certitude and reach, and of remaining a known only as long as, and to the extent, that it withstands any possible doubt or challenge.

In his 2012 Watson Lecture at Caltech, David J. Gross (2004 Nobel Laureate in Physics) declared, “Human knowledge expands only on the frontier of human ignorance.” When man determines to learn, he must abandon the knowns that shape his world, and discover the uncertainties or insufficiencies, within and without, then set about to resolve them.

The record of errors that is history shows that smugness and certitude about the knowns has consistently led to intellectual and cultural stasis and decadence. History shows that burning or proscribing books, prohibiting speech, art, science or education, suppressing opinion, shunning the offensive or discomforting, does not work: It is error.

You cannot, and should not wish to, insulate yourself from the physical or psychological or cultural environment. You must welcome it, and deal with it, and it has ever been, and continues to be, in constant change. Often, the changes are cyclical. We try something for a while, then modify or change it, then return to where we began. That is life. “Problems are inevitable” says David Deutsch in his book The Beginning of Infinity, then adds, “Problems are soluble.”

In order to do this, to assimilate it and to solve it, wrote Cass Sunstein, law professor at Harvard, persons must be exposed to a wide range of things and ideas and perspectives, especially those they would not choose to see or hear. Listening to dissimilar, divergent and contrasting contentions or propositions or hypotheses ensures that people do not hear only an echo of their own voice or thought. Plus, the validity of one’s own knowns must be permitted to be tested, by others and by one’s self.

You must take care not permit your intellect and imagination to be manipulated by fear of encountering something new or disturbing, or discomforting or offensive; nor by complacent surrender to recommendation algorithms in your newsfeed or search engine whose function and effect, if not purpose, is to narrow the horizons that you must strive to expand.

Listen to the dissonance and the harmony of the human experience. Reach for the uncertain —— create the uncertainty, the better to resolve it. If you graduate with the notion that Aun Aprendo is a good goal for your life, you must also say, Aun Dudo. Embrace that skepticism, and the recognition of insufficiency or of ignorance, are the frontier of knowledge. Do not fear to err in your intellectual pursuits. Urge your imagination to guess, to conjecture, to be inspired and to dream.