Epistemology

thinkerWe 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 are reluctant to consider the possibility that we may have already been wrong.

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 some people.

No one has all the answers. Not even you. Not even me.

Someone will say “But I have all the answers! People just need to listen to me!” Ask that person: Why isn’t everyone 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. To do that, maybe you need to listen to them more. (I try to make a habit of reciting this paragraph 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.”

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dilbert epistemology

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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 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.”

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30 March 2017, version 2.05. Epistemology is the theory of knowledge — i.e., how do we know things, and to what extent is it possible to know things.