Things You should know about Knowing. Part 2

I choose to start the story here. Also, if you don’t want to wade through lots of guff, you can skip to point 10.

The Scientist

The Solipsist is now quietly crying into his beer, so you decide to call it a night. The Scientist and The Conversationalist took off yonks ago – only you would be daft enough to try to discuss Epistemology with an epishtemogled Solipist. But don’t despair, the path to wisdom is strewn with stewed Solipsists.

BeakerThe following day you call The Scientist to see if he’d be willing to chew through THE QUESTION with you. He answers the phone by pretending it’s a StarTrek Communicator. You feel deflated. You manage to get him to agree to meet you for lunch then hang up before he can say, “Live long and Prosper!” (Even the path to wisdom can only handle a limited amount of StarTrekkin’).

You meet in The Refectory at the University, The Scientist is sipping instant coffee out of the lid of a Thermos he’s brought from home. There are x+1 number of things you need to know in order survive this situation:

1. Embrace the existential shudder you will inevitably feel as you sit down at the table. The Universe is reminding you that it still exists: that in a quiet corner of reality somewhere a wildflower dances with the wind; that the smell of hot grass and eucalyptus still talks; and that you might belong to this world in subtle, unexpected ways.
If you are overcome by a sudden Whitmanesque desire to jump on the table and bellow ‘YAWP!!!’ Do it.
Don’t expect anyone to care.

2. The Scientist is suspiciously like the mirror image of The Solipsist (could it be that this scenario is just a little too neat?). Whereas the Solipsist begins from the good intuition that all our knowledge of the world takes place from within our unique standpoint (place, time, experiences, faculties), the Scientist is fascinated by the insight that if our knowledge is to be genuinely of the world, then doesn’t just consist in stating the contents of our heads.
Sounds right, doesn’t it?

3. The problem arises when the Scientist gets carried away by the objectivity of knowledge and starts to claim that knowledge only consists in those things which exist independently of the person knowing them.

4. This claim immediately presents us with a problem: how do we sort out real Knowledge (i.e., that which exists independently of the person knowing) from mere Opinion (i.e., claims that have far too much to do with what the knower is drinking)?

5. Solipsists don’t have this problem because ultimately they don’t really believe in a difference between knowledge and opinion. But because Solipsists only rarely pop into existence the majority of the history of Epistemology is devoted to working on this problem.
(not the non-existence of solipsists, the other problem (see point 4))

6. The kind of Scientist that you are likely to be meeting in the Refec, will probably solve this problem by giving a strictly empirical definition of knowledge: i.e., he will claim that ‘knowledge’ only occurs when a particular claim can be backed up with a particular kind of evidence (experimental), and for which this evidence can be independently verified (or more properly, falsified), and most importantly, for which general rules can be framed that will be observable by others in relevantly similar situations.
(Yes, that was one long sentence…)

7. You be a lunatic to deny the power of this definition when applied in the context of scientific method.
But what is it power to do?
Largely, it is power to make accurate predictions about the future behaviour of material features of the world based on accurate observation of past patterns. It is about framing rules that explain causes.
And boy does it work!

8. But if we get too swept away with the Scientist’s strictly empirical definition of knowledge, then we end up thinking we only genuinely know two kinds of things: first, the immediate impressions of the world we get through our senses; secondly, the rules of causation which we arrive at when we have properly applied empirical methodology.

9. This restriction is difficult to swallow:
First, it’s very hard to point to anything that seems even remotely like ‘an immediate impression’, or ‘a pure observation’ of the world. Everything that we see, hear, feel, whatever other sense you might possess, has already worked its way through a cognitive process that has irretrievably synthesised these naked impressions into a larger experience. So, when Bruce the Bagman comes and sits down next to me at the bar, I don’t have a naked impression of Bruce’s smell which I can describe independent of my feelings of like or dislike, or the memories it evokes, or even the cultural vocabulary by which smells are described. Bruce’s eau, is definitely and irretrievably du toilet
Of course, we can describe the mechanisms by which this might work, electrical impulses, the different centres of the brain, but that isn’t actually the same as actually experiencing the naked impression. There is really no way to get ‘behind-the-scenes’ in your mind, and see the ‘world-as-it-is-in-itself.’

Secondly, if we are sceptical about ‘pure observation’, then its also very difficult to accept that ‘rules of causal behaviour’ is a category significantly broad enough to cover the sorts of things we mean when we use the word ‘knowledge’. For example, it doesn’t seem like a satisfactory account of what it means for me to say, “I know Bruce.” Most of us would accept that “I know Bruce” is more than a claim to possess a great deal of empirical evidence about Bruce and that I can accurately form causal predictions about his future behaviour on the basis of my past observations (not for a minute denying that this is a valid and humorous activity in which to pass the hours).
If you asked me to back up my claim that I know Bruce, I would point to the kinds of things that Bruce and I have shared together, not merely the quality of the observations I have made of him.

Furthermore, things like ‘rules of causation’ have had a very hard time gaining purchase when it comes to the study of causally complex things like humans. And it gets even harder the smaller the population of people you are seeking to deal with. In fact, it is nonsensical to speak of general rules that would describe every aspect of an individual human life. Rules stated at that level of specificity are not rules at all, they are people.

10. I’ve rabbited on long enough…
Here’s the conclusion of the matter for now:
I’ve been in enough debates down the Pub to know that most of what we discuss in that August Hall of Disputation revolves around whether particular claims to knowledge, are in fact, objectively true.
It usually goes like this:
Dave: “It is, in fact, the case that Bruce here, is a dead-set legend, and once drank a schooner of horse tranquilliser and still walked home.
(some murmurs of approval, a few mutters of disagreement… someone throws a chair.)
Trevor: “What are your warrants for that claim, Dave?”
(Trevor, Dave, Bruce, and Others, proceed to cite evidence and question the logic for and against the position. This may or may not include arm-wrestling.)
My point is simply this: the claim that knowledge is (in some sense) ‘objective’, is important for our belief that we can actually live with, work, drink, and persuade each other. Debating Solipsists is a recipe for Mental Illness. However, our claims for objectivity in knowledge can’t be made in such a way that we ‘depersonalise’ the character of all our knowledge.

What do we do?
How do we keep an eye on Scylla, while surfing Charybdis?


3 thoughts on “Things You should know about Knowing. Part 2

  1. Whoa, new comment system!

    The somewhat scientific mode of discourse was a little harder for a small brain like mine to wade through than the discussion of the solipsist. But still very enjoyable. I came across some 'warm' discussion while at the Engineering dept. precisely because epistemological differences between the scientists and those calling themselves Critical Realists. Ironically, much of the heat was due to the fact that the scientists' seemed unable to comprehend that they even had an epistemology.


  2. hmmm, on reflection I probably overthought this post. Emma found it too technical as well. You should see all the rubbish I cut out of it.Still I came up with a possible book title: "Epishtemogoly: how to win arguments at the Pub…"


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