Knowing

I’ve been playing with this idea for awhile. I’m not sue how good an argument it is. Let’s try it out.

The point I’ll eventually drive to is that creationists aren’t all whack. But it will take a bit to set up.

There are many ways we can come to know things. I’ll list a several.

Instinct – behaviours that do not need to be taught or reasoned. Crying when distressed. Holding our breath underwater.

Logic and math – given a set of axioms you can prove another set of axioms.

Observation – we learn by experiencing the world around us.

Revelation – knowledge gifted directly from God.

Imagination – we just make stuff up.

Science – testing the truth of a hypothesis through experimentation.

Belief – knowledge given to us by others – people, books, the Interwebs which we believe.

It is a pretty cool list. I’m not pretending it is complete. And obviously revelation is debatable if you’re an atheist.

However, each knowledge type has difficulties in determining truth. I’ll run through them again.

Instinct – it is a behaviour set but not reason by definition.

Logic and math – this is great at determining truth, but it requires that the axioms you start with are themselves true. Also, it can be hard.

Observation – “I’ll believe it when I see it.” But in general, we are lousy observers. Our observations are clouded by memory and bias and emotion. It is a cop maxim that no two witnesses will describe a crime or criminal the same. Science was really designed to overcome our observational flaws.

Revelation – the good news is that this must be true by definition. The bad is that most cases seem to be very hard to distinguish from imagination or mental health issues.

Imagination – while you might luck out with truth, you’re more likely to have fiction.

Science – Science is far better at proving things false than true. But you can often get “true within this set of constraints”. It is cool because it brings together many other knowledge types. Imagination to make a hypothesis. Logic to design your testing criteria and interpret results. Observation to conduct the tests.

Belief – the truth of received knowledge is entirely based on the quality of the teacher.

Anyone still here?

We live in an age of science. It’s wonders surround us as proof of its efficacy. I’m writing this on a hand held device that would have been wild imagination a century ago. It was a common scifi trope fifty years ago. Now it is nigh ubiquitous.

But there aren’t really a lot of scientists. Not a lot of people that actually do science whether it is designing experiments or verifying and critiquing them.

Most of our scientific knowledge comes about as belief. Learned knowledge passed by teachers, parents, friends, coworkers and the Internet. In most cases, modern science is so complex that we couldn’t run the experiments ourselves anyway. Heck, Newton had a far better scientific knowledge of optics, the move of celestial bodies and curves than I do. Even though I know some quantum mechanics that help explain it all – Newton did the science. I’ve just been told about it.

This is one of the key legs of my argument. We talk a lot of science, but we don’t do science. The knowledge is passed to us and we believe it.

We believe things from sources we find trustworthy. There are other measures. New knowledge must be consistent with old knowledge. It should itself be consistent. But I contend that first and foremost it is about the trustworthiness of the source.

Our ability to determine trustworthiness is some of the first knowledge we develop as children. Our parents first. Then teachers. Then friends. Later we trust other experts. But that initial core of what we believe including who we should trust comes from our folks.

Later in our teenage years and 20s we are hard wired to question and challenge those beliefs. But early on we trust parents.

That is leg two.

We live in a horrible age of trustworthiness. We are asked to believe things all day long. Marketing that tells us much, but whose only truth is the desire to sell a product. Politicians who can’t separate fact from spin of their own political biases.

Science is just a play toy for them. Another tool to sell a product or an ideology. This, I contend, has the impact of reducing how much credibility we will give to scientific knowledge.

Leg three.

Which brings us to evolution vs. creationism. Or alternatively science vs. religion. Or scientific knowledge vs revelation. At least that is how the argument is generally framed. “How can they believe such tripe? Look at the evidence!”

But it is really belief vs. belief. But we are pointing at expert opinions. We aren’t doing the science. We are observing species in isolation like Darwin. We aren’t breeding fruit flies like Mendelev. We aren’t analyzing DNA strands.

So if it is belief it becomes about the trustworthiness of the experts. The scientists, contaminated by marketing and pseudo-science, who seem to express contempt for religion on one side. The other are the friends, family and church leaders you’ve grown to trust all your life.

That is the specific case. But in the general think about this the next time you are arguing with someone about their incorrect beliefs. You get annoyed because they ignore your science, your logic and your experts. But what you aren’t succeeding at is the argument to, “Trust me more than the person you got bad knowledge from.” It becomes a social problem rather than a science one.

Or that might just annoy you.

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2 thoughts on “Knowing

  1. Stef says:

    Even the active scientists are working from consensus. The ruling narrative is Aristotle for hundreds of years and suddenly, after only a few messy years, you have the mechanical universe of Newton, Copernicus et al. That rules for hundreds of years until it gets flipped by the Einsteinian revolution. Just consensus.

    • You sound like Tolstoy arguing against Great Man theory of history in War and Peace.

      True experimental science relies on published, repeatable and verifiable results. Sciences less able to generate experimental results certainly rely more on consensus – like say climate change modelling.

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