Knowledge, Security and the Unknown

The Iconic Apple

Knowledge is an interesting thing.  Lack of it drives us towards doing things that we wouldn’t do if we had more knowledge.  It also allows us to do things with bad consequences without being considered foolish – as long as the knowledge that makes that action foolish is difficult to obtain.  A classic example is Sleeping Beauty.  Most people don’t count her as foolish for taking a bite of the apple despite the fact that there were only negative consequences.  How was she to know?  Anyone could have made that mistake.  Knowledge that the poisoned apple wasn’t easily obtainable.  Eve on the other hand, already knew there were consequences to her apple, yet she ate of it anyways.  Foolish people.  And while she does represent the common person, so technically anyone could and would have also made that mistake she was clearly given a command and a tidbit of knowledge (you shall die) that made her eating the apple a foolish act.

For Robinson Crusoe, stranded on an unknown land, with unknown dangers, unknown provisions, unknown history and unknown unknowns he felt he needed security.  Justifiable.  Here he describes what exactly he did to boost his security, and a lot of work it was.

Pg 72 – The Life and Adventures of Robinson Crusoe
Then I took the pieces of cable which I had cut in the ship, and laid them in rows one upon another, … leaning against … about two foot and a half high … this fence was so strong, that neither man nor beast could get into it or over it. This cost me a great deal of time and labour, especially to cut the piles in the woods, bring them to the place, and drive them into the earth.

Security (though a bit more modern than Crusoe’s)

The thing is, was all this work needed, necessary and thus not a waste?  Or was it not needed, unnecessary and an utter waste?

Pg 73 – The Life and Adventures of Robinson Crusoe
…I was completely fenced in and fortified, as I thought, from all the world, and consequently spent secure in the night, which otherwise I could not have done; though, as it appeared afterword, there was no need of all this caution from the enemies that I apprehended danger from.

Well, Defoe gives us a hint of things to come by clearly stating that the fortification was never used as a fort.  Therefore the security system wasn’t really needed and unnecessary; but was it a waste like stated above?  This is where the role of knowledge comes in – despite the later fact that the security was never needed, most would have deemed Crusoe foolish if he had never secured himself or his provisions.  The future is not knowable as fact, at least not to Humans (whether God knows the future as fact is debatable).  So sure, it was a material waste but its immaterial goods surpassed its cost.  Same thing goes with our modern insurance premiums (excluding health care), we pay the premiums time and time again hoping that the premiums go to material waste and we never have a need to call the insurance company.  As mentioned above, there are things that are unknown and we often don’t have the luxury of waiting until the unknown becomes known.  Crusoe acted on his limited knowledge, and so do we.  These aren’t foolish acts but carefully calculated actions to reduce the damage if the unknown proves to be bad.  Risk mitigation in other words.  Security reduces the risk of our lack of knowledge.

This post is the second of a short series of commentary based on quotes pulled from The Life and Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, by Daniel Defoe.  The book was an enjoyable, pretty short and easy read.  Here are some quick links to posts related to this book: Short review of the book itself, all the quotes in one place, and a list of other commentary like this one.

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