Epistemology: What Can We Be Sure Of?
We are surrounded by lies. Different people see different parts of the truth — and in showing people parts that they haven’t seen before, different people are ready for different revelations.
We all have different trusted sources for what we believe to be facts, and trust — like friendship — cannot be won through debate.
It becomes harder to be objective and logical regarding matters that we have already acted upon or spoken about. We become committed to a position or principle. We are reluctant to consider the possibility that we may have already been wrong.
Most politicians and corporate executives lack integrity, of course. Curiously, many other people — perhaps most other people in our present culture — suffer from an excess of integrity. We become attached to some principle, and some of us take an attitude of “either you’re with me or you’re against me, and I won’t listen to any counter-arguments.” That would be fine, if life consisted only of yes-or-no questions, and if we could be sure we were right. But quite often the person we’re talking with is just as committed to some different principle, one that might not be directly in opposition to our own. If we could just reformulate our own principle and the other person’s principle, stating them in other terms, perhaps we could find some common ground. But that would require listening enough to understand the other person.
Even at its best, even when used properly, logic only shows us the consequences of our assumptions. It cannot help us to choose assumptions. Most of us are not consciously aware of our own assumptions, and so those are just things that we see as “obviously true.” Different things are obvious to different people — and even that fact is not obvious to a lot of people. And so when we see something that others do not see, we need to spell it out; merely hinting at it will not suffice.
When we see something that contradicts what we already believe, the first reaction most of us have is to not see it, and to live in denial. We vary in the degree to which we behave this way. The people who deny most consistently are those who have been taught from an early age that reason should defer to faith, i.e., to conformity with the establishment’s beliefs. Others, who have been taught to cherish reason, may begin to see a new idea after it has been shoved under their noses several times, but it’s still not obvious. The people who make great discoveries are the ones who hardly jump to denial at all, the ones who immediately notice when evidence disagrees with established paradigm. This is not easy even for scientists, who cherish reason, for even they are unaware of their own paradigms.
No one has all the answers. Not even you. Not even me.
For instance, no one knows how to achieve world peace. Proof: If someone knew how, then we would already have world peace.
Someone will say “But I have all the answers! People just need to listen to me!” Ask that person: Why isn’t everyone already listening to you? Apparently you haven’t yet figured out how to present your ideas in a fashion that appeals to other people. So even if your ideas are right, you haven’t understood those other people very well yet. And isn’t understanding those people part of the answer? After all, peace can’t be forced on people. Just by definition, it can only be achieved by consensus. To understand those other people better, maybe you need to listen to them more.
(I try to make a habit of reciting this proof to myself whenever I catch myself lacking in humility.)
Most of us humans prefer simple explanations when we can get them. But sometimes the truth isn’t as simple as we might like. Seek simplicity, but don’t be seduced by it.
Successful communication requires a shared language, and it requires some thinking skills from both the speaker and the listener. If you fail to communicate with someone, that’s possibly not their fault, and very probably not their intention. And even if they actually =are= stupid, telling them so will not improve the situation.
Mary Doria Russell said “Wisdom begins when you discover the difference between ‘That doesn’t make sense’ and ‘I don’t understand’.”
Malcolm X said, “Don’t be in such a hurry to condemn a person because he doesn’t do what you do, or think as you think or as fast. There was a time when you didn’t know what you know today.”
We can only understand reality through our models of it, but they are always simpler than reality, and therefore somewhat inaccurate. Different models, such as a road map, a topographical map, and an aerial photograph, are useful for different purposes. So learn many models, and don’t take any one of them too seriously..
Classical physics has an objective reality that is independent of any observer. Politics is not like that. What matters in politics is not just objective facts, but our interpretation of the significance of the facts.
For instance, when a bullet from one man’s gun enters another man’s body, that’s an objective physical fact. But is it murder? self-defense? justified war? unjustified war? That depends on our framework of interpretation, our models. Perhaps, in the end, it is the poets who will save us, by finding better words to describe the world.
The so-called “Socratic method” is overrated. Socrates would ask someone a series of questions, and their own answers would lead them to the conclusion Socrates wanted. But debates are always won by whoever frames the questions. Thomas Pynchon described that as one of the bases for deceptive propaganda: “If they can get you asking the wrong questions, they don’t have to worry about the answers.”
I think the greatest problems facing our society are the results of defects in our culture. We need to change our culture. The main ingredient for changing our culture is to see our culture more clearly. That’s not easy to do. That’s like a fish discovering water. It’s hard to see our own limitations. And even if someone sees the limitations in our culture, they may have difficulty describing those limitations to you, because our language reflects those limitations. Actually, I think it is possible to describe new ideas, but it may take a huge number of words to describe even a simple idea if the idea is new and unfamiliar.
Try to be kind. For everyone you meet is involved in a struggle you know nothing about.
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I’ll venture onto some thin ice here, and add a few words about religion. I am surprised that some people are absolutely certain that their religion is the correct one, particularly if their religion is based on some “sacred text” (such as the New Testament, for instance). What surprises me about this is that there are so many different sects, all interpreting the same sacred text in different ways, and yet each is certain that they’ve got the right interpretation. For instance, some believe Jesus wants you to love your gay neighbor, and some believe Jesus wants you to hate your gay neighbor; why are they both certain that they’re correct?
Some people bemoan the fact that there is so little justice in this world. Sometimes I think that the purpose of humans is to create justice.
Personally, I find the idea of a god unlikely, or even preposterous. But I will never be certain that there is no god. That’s because I used to read a lot of science fiction when I was young, and so I have learned how to imagine all sorts of things. For instance, perhaps right this minute God is sitting in a Starbucks somewhere, sipping a latté, reading a newspaper, and laughing to herself about how she fooled all the scientists by putting all those fake carbon-dated fossils under the mountains when she created the universe just 6000 years ago, for god-only-knows what reason.
Ultimately, we are at the mercy of the universe, whether it includes a god or not. Try to be kind, try to be happy, try not to take yourself too seriously.
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2019 May 28, version 2.12. Epistemology is the theory of knowledge — i.e., how do we know things, what kinds of things is it possible to know, and to what extent is it possible to know them. And here is a direct link to the “proof.” (Original version 2012 Sept 29.)