Saturday, July 18, 2015

Relating Ourselves to Indirect Knowledge, Pt. 2

In part 1of this series, I began a discussion of how we can use reason to relate ourselves to indirect knowledge. Indirect knowledge is, briefly, knowledge that we ourselves do not know the immediate reasons for its truth. Instead, someone else knows the reasons, and we are related to that knowledge through them by their mediation. Examples include complicated mathematical proofs (like the one recently demonstrated for  Fermat's Last Theorem). We might not be able to follow the logic, but the mathematicians can, and we can appreciate what the mathematical geniuses have done. Or scientific claims like global warming, in which we cannot possibly conduct or review the science ourselves, but instead must trust what the relevant experts say about it.

Relating ourselves to indirect knowledge is very different than relating ourselves directly to knowledge. The latter involves a consideration of truth immediately in terms of the fundamental reasons for something's being true or not. There is no mediator. In the former, the crucial question is how we judge the mediator, since we must take his word respecting the fundamental reasons for the truth of falsity of something. In my earlier post, I pointed to Socrates as an example of how to evaluate mediators, and used his example in the Apology: We must test a mediator to discover whether he himself is able to separate his knowledge from his opinions, and so give us only his expert knowledge and not also, in addition, his non-expert and perhaps poorly founded opinions masquerading as expert knowledge. I gave Carl Sagan as a classic example of the expert who fails Socratic examination. In such cases, an expert can still be useful, but we must be very careful to separate what he genuinely knows through his expertise (the wheat) versus the mass of non-expert opinion he gives along with it (the chaff).

We may also consider that indirect knowledge can never contradict direct knowledge. There is only one truth and it is the same for us as it is for everyone else. Thus we know 2+2=4 directly, and any purportedly expert theory that ends up contradicting that truth (implicitly as well as explicitly) must be suspect; for whatever the expert knows, he can't know that 2+2 equals something other than 4. That's an obvious and trivial example, and better examples are not hard to find. Let's look at what Jerry Coyne tells us about truth, fact and knowledge on pages 186 and 195 of Faith vs Fact:

(Begin quote)
For consistency, I'll again use the Oxford English Dictionary's definitions, which correspond roughly to most people's vernacular use. "Truth" is "conformity with fact; agreement with reality; accuracy, correctness, verity (of statement or thought.)" Because we're discussing facts about the universe, I'll use "fact" as Stephen Jay Gould defined "scientific facts": those "confirmed to such a degree that it would be perverse to withhold provisional assent." Note that these definitions imply the use of independent confirmation - a necessary ingredient for determining what's real - and consensus, that is, the ability of any reasonable person familiar with the method of study to agree on what it confirms... Finally, "knowledge" is simply the public acceptance of facts; as the Dictionary puts it, "The apprehension of fact or truth with the mind; clear and certain perception of fact or truth; the state or condition of knowing fact or truth." What is true may exist without being recognized, but once it is it becomes knowledge. Similarly, knowledge isn't knowledge unless it is factual, so "private knowledge" that comes through revelation or intuition isn't really knowledge, for it's missing the crucial ingredient of verification and consensus...

"I'm hungry," my friend tells me, and that too is seen as extrascientific knowledge. And indeed, any feeling that you have, any notion or revelation, can be seen as subjective truth or knowledge. What that means is that it's true that you feel that way. What that doesn't mean is that the epistemic content of your feeling is true. That requires independent verification by others. Often someone claiming hunger actually eats very little, giving rise to the bromide "Your eyes are bigger than your stomach."
(Emphases in original and end quote).

Socrates once put forward the observation that flute-playing implies a flute player. Similarly, knowledge implies a knower. There is no knowledge without someone knowing that knowledge or, in other words, knowledge is the substance of the act of knowing. What this means is that, contra Coyne, all knowledge is subjective, meaning that all knowledge is knowledge only because it is known by someone, somewhere, at some time. The fact that all knowledge is subjective is a piece of primary knowledge - it is something we can know directly for ourselves simply by reflection on the nature of things. Thinkers like Coyne like to speak of the abstraction "science", as though it is a disembodied process generating results all on its own, but we should remember that science is but the activity of scientists, and to the extent that anything is known by science, it is known by individual scientists here and there.

The "independent confirmation" of which Coyne writes is a useful and wonderful thing, but he fails to realize that it is dependent on the "subjective truth or knowledge" that he disparages. "I'm hungry" is certainly one thing we can say; another is "I hear or have read your experience in confirming my scientific experiment." The latter is as subjective as the former. Coyne claims that the former needs independent verification of its epistemic content (that content apparently being "I need food.")  Well what about the latter? The epistemic content of the latter is that "it is a fact that you have confirmed my scientific experiment." This would seem to need independent verification as well. How will I get it? By listening to something else you say or write, or what someone else has said or written? Then those subjective experiences - which as experiences are also of the form "I am hearing you say that..." - are themselves subject to the same requirement of independent verification. We have an infinite regress here, and for a very good reason. Any contact I have with reality will be subjective, simply because I am me, and science can escape that truth only on pain of indulging in magical thinking. Introducing a radical divide between our subjective experience and its epistemic content destroys not only Coyne's intended target of religious belief, but the very possibility of knowledge.

"I'm hungry" does not always mean that I need food. But in the normal course of events it does; that is why nature gave us the feeling. "I hear you saying that you have confirmed my experiment" doesn't always mean I have heard you say that - I could be dreaming, hallucinating or simply have misheard you - let alone that you have in fact confirmed my experiment. But in the normal course of events it does, and in the normal course of events I might reasonably take for granted that you have in fact confirmed my experiment. Subjective experience is not indubitable; the attempt to make it indubitable (as in the thinking of Descartes) only leads to yet more fundamental and dangerous misunderstandings. But it is literally all we have got.

The only basis from which to critique our subjective experience is through yet more subjective experience. Doesn't this just involve us in yet another infinite regress? No, because this involves us in the philosophical process of dialectic. Subjective experience does not go on to infinity, but turns back on itself, We criticize subjective experience A in terms of experience B and B in terms of A, deciding what makes the most sense based on how our theories make sense of experience comprehensively.

For instance, consider the ancient philosophical question of the difference between sleeping and waking. How do I know I'm not sleeping right now? I notice that in certain cognitive states the question of whether I am sleeping or waking never occurs to me, and seems like it could not occur. These states, of course, are when I am sleeping, and in fact when the question occurs to me as to whether I am sleeping or waking, I know I am in the processing of waking up. So the difference between sleeping and waking seems to be that waking is aware of both itself and the state of sleeping, while sleeping is not aware of either itself or the waking state. Now since I am aware of the distinction between the two states, I must be awake. Thus we have the subjective experience of sleeping (experience A) being critiqued from subjective experience B (waking), with both experiences shedding light on the other (from the perspective of B) leading to a comprehensive insight into both experiences.

Or consider the process of science itself. While flute-playing implies a flute-player, and knowledge implies a knower, science implies a scientist. That is, all science occurs in the context of the subjective experience of a scientist. This is a very valuable piece of direct knowledge that is surprisingly often overlooked. Scientists, being people like you and me, can and must take the everyday world of common sense for granted; not just in their everyday life, but in their scientific endeavors as well. If the microbiologist starts wondering whether he's really looking through his microscope, or the physicist that he's really discussing his results with other physicists and not merely a Matrix-like simulation meant to deceive him, then his science will never get started. There is therefore a dialectic between ordinary experience and the specialized experience of the scientist in the lab.

Coyne seems to be in the grip of a mythical belief that the scientific method allows one, in the moment of science, to transcend human nature itself and reach the otherwise unattainable realm of the "objective." Like all truth myths, it  isn't recognized as such but serves as an unarticulated background assumption.

And the cure for it is philosophical reflection on direct experience.