Many disagreements on issues come down to a fundamental difference on how people arrive at what they consider to be ‘true’ and the different weighting they give to different kinds of knowledge claims. It is even worse when people are unaware of how they are arriving at their conclusions and have given no thought whatsoever to whether or not these methods are sound, or appropriate to the categories they are applying those methods to. I have given thought to this, indeed, you could even say I wrote the book on epistemology. 😉 There have been many occasions where I thought it would be helpful to my interlocutor to understand my approach to knowledge, but recently, one of my sons asked me how to determine if something is ‘fake news.’
Well, that’s a deep question to fall into! My full answer would require another book, but in interests of giving some insight to my son, and perhaps some debate partners on the way, I will summarize it.
A proper treatment of the question would first of all examine the axiomatic nature of it. The assumption is that it is preferable to have knowledge than to not have it. But why is that the case? Second of all, we have to recognize the basic mystery of knowledge. We ‘know’ that 2+2=4, and this is corroborated by, for example, putting 2 baseballs with 2 baseballs and noting that every time we do, we have 4 baseballs. But why not 3, 5, or 500? Why is it that our logic correlates with the universe? We don’t strictly know it, but the assumption seems to hold true, so we call it knowledge, and not without good reason.
Nonetheless, its good to be able to tell the difference between things we assume and things we know, and even better if we can admit it to ourselves and others.
A full treatment of the question would also entail a discussion of what I call ‘the golden rule of epistemology.’ (That’s what my book was about.) Its very easy: if our ‘knowledge’ leads us to a conclusion which requires that we declare it impossible to know anything (including our knowledge that it is impossible to know anything), we must reject that which we considered to be ‘knowledge’ out of hand. Sawing off the limb you are standing on works in cartoons, but creates devastation in the real world; Chesterton had this idea in mind when he attacked ‘the thought that ends all thought.’ There are a great number of viewpoints that are out there that are self-defeating, with the adherents being none the wiser. Post-modernism, relativism, Darwinism, would be examples. One that many tend to agree on is logical positivism, which took awhile, but eventually even most of its proponents realized it could not be supported by its own weight. So, the ‘golden rule’ is not an abstraction. It is very relevant, as it is widely flaunted. But eventually reality breaks in.
We naturally have to offer a definition of knowledge, too. Philosophers have argued about this, too! For my purposes, I will simply say that “knowledge is the personal awareness of information that accurately conforms to reality as it actually is.” Reality is the baseline for our truth claims, not our perception of it. On this definition, we can immediately see that there are pitfalls all around. One might be aware of a state of affairs that conforms to reality, but may arrive at that awareness by flawed methods or approaches. We’re not going to parse that sort of thing here, but I thought it might be good to at least highlight my view that if what we consider knowledge does not correlate with actual reality, whatever it is we think we ‘know,’ we do not actually ‘know.’
However, one thing I will say is this: most people don’t actually know a quarter of the things they think they know. For example, I find that the ‘fallacy of the collective we’ runs rampant in society. In this fallacy, you will hear someone say something like, “We now know that….” But the person making this statement doesn’t actually know jack. He is appropriating someone else’s knowledge, and for all he knows, this person is likewise appropriating someone else’s knowledge. And, at bottom, we might find that the knowledge claim our chain is resting on is held by someone who has a whole host of problems–he may be hopelessly biased, or morally compromised, or on the take, and so on. Or, an equally plausible possibility, although more charitable, is that the first link in the chain himself doesn’t consider the knowledge claim to be 100% established fact. If that is the case, then we don’t actually know the the thing that we now know, do we?
People who say “We now know that” are usually arrogant (and ignorant) snobs who read a headline in Time Magazine and then think they know something. Or my favorite, the folks who read a small paragraph in a 9th grade text book and now think they know the end of the matter… because obviously, it wouldn’t be in the text book, or in Time Magazine, if it weren’t real!
It is critical to understand that we don’t ‘know’ all the things we think we ‘know’ and be willing to tell the difference. We might casually say that we know that Person Y did Action B, but we should be self-aware enough to know that what we really means is, “Article X in Publication Z says that Person Y did Action B.” So it is that strictly speaking, we don’t know that Person Y did Action B. We know that’s what we read… but if anyone has knowledge, its the author of Article X, or, even more likely, it is Person Y. And even Person Y might have an incomplete picture of the action in question.
All these ambiguities and caveats matter a great deal if you hope to navigate life’s many decisions without hurting yourself or others.
Now, before I go through and set out my method for determining what is most likely real, I need to also address another important preliminary issue. Namely, not all knowledge claims are determined through the same methods. Sometimes, the nature of the knowledge claim cannot even in principle be determined through a particular method. This is very important, because you can screw up your entire worldview if you don’t get it right, although here again, reality tends to break in. That is to say, people might say that they consider one method of gaining knowledge to be preferable, but in their real life, they hardly ever use the method. Not because they don’t have opportunity, but because even they aren’t that stupid.
One of the best examples of this are the secular humanist atheistic skeptics who elevate the ‘scientific method’ above all else. Now, to be clear, I’m a big fan of the real scientific method, and I consider it to be a powerful tool. But, as with anything, one must use the right tool for the job! So, the scientific method is a great tool for determining, say, if water boils at a particular temperature at a certain pressure. If, however, you are trying to determine if a woman loves you, and you throw her into a pot and boil her, we can say with great confidence that if she ever loved you, she doesn’t now!
Of course, your average empiricist does not settle questions of the heart by boiling the objects of his affection, or burning them to a crisp and putting the ashes into a test tube and carefully weighing them. Your average empiricist does not settle 1/100th of the issues he thinks he ‘knows’ via the scientific method, because, as I am saying, reality often breaks in.
(Hint: if you want to find out if someone loves you, your most reliable guide is what we would call ‘revelation.’ Ie, she reveals it to you.)
The scientific method is nice because when it is the appropriate tool for the job, it can often provide more definitive ‘knowledge.’ But here is where the “fallacy of the collective we” comes tearing in with a vengeance. Not one of us has performed 1/1000th of the actual experiments that have given us information that we reasonably consider knowledge. Someone may have performed the experiment, but it wasn’t us. In point of fact, your most hardened atheist who insists on rock solid empirical demonstration for truth claims actually relies on the revelation of those who actually carried out the empirical demonstration. It is worse than that: I bet that most of us, myself included, could not name 50 specific individuals who are responsible for the scientific investigations behind some of the things we think we know are true about the physical universe, and yet I bet we believe we know 5,000 things we think are true about it.
I don’t fault anyone for trusting that Scientist K has accurately performed experiment G and learned knowledge J, and then behaving as though J is a legitimate piece of knowledge. I only fault them for being unaware of how much they depend on revelation in their epistemology.
In our actual experience of reality, it is usually the case that we cannot be as definitive as what we can theoretically be when weighing or boiling things. On the other hand, as I have argued, the best way to know certain things is sometimes not going to be by weighing or boiling them at all. That does not mean that we are out of luck. There are still methods for determining truth which often give us good, reliable results.
The American justice system offers a good example. In this adversarial system, evidence of various sorts are brought into the courtroom, and subjected to cross-examination and other (hopefully) rigorous tests. The scientific method provides some of that evidence. The trustworthiness of revealers is evaluated (ie, ‘witnesses’). Claims are weighed, deemed significant, or even discarded. But here again, this is a system that we cannot often avail ourselves of in the ordinary course of business. Nonetheless, it is a system which allows us to compare propositions against the standard, ‘beyond a reasonable doubt,’ which is sufficiently robust that if the standard is met, we have been known to execute people. So, it is not a method to be sneezed at. And yet it remains that most of us cannot convene a grand jury to ask, say, “Do I know for a fact that drinking coffee every morning will not give me cancer?”
From the foregoing, it should be clear that determining if what we know is something we really know is not an easy task. There are many pitfalls, caveats, exceptions, all along the way. For some people, that is an excuse to throw up their hands in despair. These are usually the same people who in their next breath will say, “You’re wrong. We now know that…”
The complexity and difficulty of determining what is true and real only means that it is not something we can take for granted. We must man up to the problem, even if 95% of our fellow citizens are clueless. With any luck, over time, we can knock that number down a percent or two. If not, at least you’ll be better off. Because when reality breaks in, it tends to do so painfully. The best play is to find out what reality is, and conform ourselves to it. It’s for our own good.
The next part will come in due time.