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Wisdom of Not Knowing

09/28/2018 12:00:00 AM


Chaim Strauchler

This Shabbat, we read the book of Kohelet. The book asks us to think deeply about life, while questioning the value of thinking itself.

Many insights can be drawn from this book. Interestingly, the pursuit of such knowledge has become popular, today. In a recent TED X lecture, computer scientist, Tom Griffiths asks how to decide what restaurant to go to.

He uses computer science to arrive at a solution. He explains:

You've got a set of options, you're going to choose one of those options, and you're going to face exactly the same decision tomorrow. In that situation, you run up against what computer scientists call the "explore-exploit trade-off." You have to make a decision about whether you're going to try something new -- exploring, gathering some information that you might be able to use in the future -- or whether you're going to go to a place that you already know is pretty good --exploiting the information that you've already gathered so far. The explore/exploit trade-off shows up any time you have to choose between trying something new and going with something that you already know is pretty good, whether it's listening to music or trying to decide who you're going to spend time with.

Over the last 60 years, computer scientists have made a lot of progress understanding the explore/exploit trade-off, and their results offer some surprising insights. When you're trying to decide what restaurant to go to, the first question you should ask yourself is how much longer you're going to be in town. If you're just going to be there for a short time, then you should exploit. There's no point gathering information. Just go to a place you already know is good. But if you're going to be there for a longer time, explore. Try something new, because the information you get is something that can improve your choices in the future. The value of information increases the more opportunities you're going to have to use it.

Rashi makes use of this common sense insight in his reading of kohelet. The text reads, Gam et haolam natan bilibam - God has placed the world in people's hearts. (3:11) Rashi notes that "Olam" is written without the vav. This teaches that we know the world, but only partially. If we knew when we would die, we would not put in effort to build our world.

Rashi argues that if we would wisely utilize the "explore-exploit trade-off," we might cease exploring and improving our world in honest recognition of our imminent mortality. God allows us to know only so much - so that we will act to the benefit of the world beyond our immediate selves.

Mon, 30 November 2020 14 Kislev 5781