Monday, August 08, 2005

No Archimedean Point

It's our dirty laundry, our family secret, our skeleton in the closet. It gets ignored or glossed over. Usually we go about our daily lives ignoring it altogether.

Knowledge. Just what the hell is it? How can we really say anything for certain? It's a long running debate and no one has come up with a definitive answer.

Every theory of knowledge eventually runs into the same problem - they're all circular. In the final analysis, every system must be believed before it can be accepted.

Empiricists say only the five senses can be trusted, but obviously they can't examine that premise empirically. Rationalists say we are inborn with certain faculties for gathering knowledge, but can't get past Descartes' deceptive demon problem. There is simply no Archimedean point on which we can stand and make statements that are beyond question.

I'm not going to try to solve that problem here. It's way beyond me. I am, however, going to explain how I evaluate truth statements. This post is just an initial introduction.

I guess I'm in the vein of pragmatists. This line of thought had its origin in the 19th-century utilitarians like JS Mills. Mills believed knowledge was developed in a survival of the fittest manner; people entered into a marketplace of ideas, and the most accurate ideas would eventually win out. Mills obviously had a lot of faith in people. I'd say that the marketplace of ideas is necessary for an Open Society, but it isn't an epistemological proving ground.

I say I'm in the vein of pragmatists because I think that each idea we have about the world will sooner or later be tested in some way. For example, on an apparent level our senses are constantly tested. If our eyes or ears are not giving us accurate information, sooner or later we will be hit by a truck. I don't see the point in questioning the existence of existence; try to live it out, and you'll be flattened on the 401. The object, as someone said, will object.

That doesn't vanquish Descartes' demon, and it doesn't prove we don't exist in The Matrix. It does show us, however, that our continued existence is dependant on the accuracy of our five sense. We gain vital, life saving knowledge from empirical observation.

But everyone knows that. Nobody really questions the existence of existence anyways. The stuff we argue about is metaphysical. The stuff that goes beyond the apparent world. And this is what the bulk of human intellectual life is concerned with. The humanities and social sciences are shot through with metaphysical statements, and even the hard sciences are not exempt.

There are three general ideas I want to talk about.

Knowledge, I think, can have a modular nature. By this I mean that each system will make some correct statements, and some false statements. The false statements do not render the entire system false; they must simply be selected out. Survival of the fittest. For example, if a particular system contains a statement like "A = not A", than the whole system does not collapse; but that statement must be rooted out and something else must take its place.

Secondly - and this is where pragmatism is important - if a system does not risk being hit by a truck, then it is a pointless system. What good is knowledge if it doesn't explain the world? I want to know why WWI happened. I want to know what is behind suicide bombings. Tell me why the Earth casts a shadow on the moon.

In other words, if a knowledge system does not take into account and explain events, behaviour patterns and the natural world, then at best it is a logically airtight, free-floating series of utterly useless statements. Systems must make statements that can be contradicted by our experience; if you aren't risking being hit by a truck, then who cares what you are saying? I don't. The whole point of knowledge is give coherence to our experience, and divorcing knowledge from experience is desperate folly.

And thirdly, everything above is nice and idealistic. Even getting hit by a truck. The problem with all of it is, however, that we don't have unmediated access to our experience. I'm not contradicting myself here; I'm explaining a difficultly. Every epistemology must not only have a test for truth, but it must also explain how we gather information in the first place. How, exactly, do we interact with the world, quite apart from any academic methodology?

I've already talked about this. The post on Martin Heidegger and AI is important, and so is the post on Michel Foucault and discourse. Both discuss the practical limits and bounds on our perception of the world.

So, this is the first post in another series - developing a method to explain our world.

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