How do we know what we can do?

A friend of mine once related a story about a programming class he took in college. There was another student in the class who asked the professor on the first day: “This is all fine, but, how do we know what computers can do?”. The professor tried to give him an answer. But clearly the answer wasn’t good enough, because he asked the question each day for a few days, then dropped out of the class.

While one could have a little snicker about that story (I know I did :-)), it’s not that there was anything at all wrong with the question, it was just in an unexpected context. Had it been a philosophy-of-technology class, that would be the perfect way to lead off the semester.

Which leads me to my main point: that sort of simple question is worth pondering for oneself: “How do I know what I can do?”, or in a social context, “How do we know what we can do?”.

It’s not an easy question to answer, at least for me, but an important one, even if it’s only asked implicitly. I’m not likely to embark upon something unless, in some sense, I think it’s within the realm of possibility for me to do it. But how do I know what I can do? Having a clear understanding of where my confidence (and lack thereof) comes from would allow me to systematically probe the borders in different directions, rather than just waiting to accidentally get there by magic.

It occurs to me as I write that that the concept of confidence, and some ideas related to it, can be hollow if it is understood as some sort of a tank in a person that must be filled, but without knowing of what it is filled or how.

(Umm, this came out less well-formed than I thought it would, mainly because I’m learning about the topic as I write about it. Hope it was useful to you to read it…)


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