Wednesday, July 09, 2008


The Old Knowledge/Perception Debate

UT Austin philosopher J Budziszewski says in his essay “The Second Tablet Project,” (First Things, June/July 2002):

“One cannot predict in advance what stories people will tell themselves to make believe that they do not know the reality of God and their obligation to Him; every agnostic and atheist devises a different set of plausibility gambits, a different pattern of omissions, of forgettings, of avertings of gaze. But it is extraordinarily difficult--I think impossible--for such self-deceptions not to slop over at some point into what one admits about the moral law. Our minds won’t go like that. “

I agree, but would go one step further: it’s not that our minds won’t go like that; it’s more like they can’t go like that. The human predilection to delude oneself is so strong, it prevents us from having any real epistemic access at all. We don’t know the world, only perceive it.

This is hardly a new idea. “For now we see through a glass, darkly,” as the Apostle Paul wrote in the 13th chapter of Corinthians. Our understanding of the world is hampered by our ability to interpret it. Or, as Plato expressed it in his cave analogy, we do not see the world itself, only the shadows and reflections of it. Behind what we see is a greater reality, if only we could turn around and look at it.

My point being: it’s not that we don’t turn around and look; we can’t.

Does anyone remember Jeremy Burke’s PBS series “The Day the Universe Changed”? Though not nearly as well received as his “Connections” series, he still made a good point: the history of science is a tale of perceptions followed by discoveries that alter those perceptions. Then, with the altered perception in place, now held to be the truth, along comes another discovery that alters the new reality. Still, it is not the reality that is altered, but only our perception of it. And in that sense, the universe changes.

Thomas Kuhn makes much the same point in his “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions,” which coined the term “paradigm shift.” A paradigm in Kuhn’s terminology is a model of the world, a model that expresses a basic idea of what the world is, how it works, and how we are to interact with it. The model seems cohesive and is held as valid for any given period of time, sometimes for centuries. But along comes some phenomenon or observation that doesn’t seem to fit. At first there is resistance, followed by acceptance, at which point we revise the model to incorporate the anomaly, which we then term a scientific revolution.

Yet Kuhn’s examination of scientific revolutions only touches upon the fact that, from time to time, they occur. One question he never seems to ask is why. Seems to me, humanity lacks the basic ability to do otherwise. Whatever paradigm of the universe we may have in mind at any given moment, it is only a paradigm. The model of the world is not the world itself. The former is only a tool to describe the latter, yet that tool is flawed, as evidenced by the fact that sooner or later it is abandoned for one that is better—or, at least, for one that we think is better.

I say “think” because even when that purportedly better tool comes along, there are still those among us who are unwilling to accept it and who still refuse to abandon the previous model. And here’s there kicker—there is absolutely no means whatsoever for any of the rest of us to make them change their minds. There is so such thing as a rational compulsion to adhere to any particular model of the universe; or to any idea; or to any scientific theory. For anyone who doubts this assertion, allow me to point out that the U.S. is home for the Flat Earth Society. There are folks who sincerely believe that the Earth is flat.

One would think such a thing to be impossible. Surely, in the 21st century, in an industrialized, high-tech, literate society such as ours, with all the data, information, and evidence at our command that the Earth is spherical (well, egg-shaped, according to recent accounts), no one would dare refute such a thing. And yet, there are those who do. I once caught an interview with an FES member, who, when confronted with a photograph of the Earth, taken by a satellite in orbit in space, explained the image before him this way: Einstein stated in his Theory of Relativity that “space is curved”; so the curvature of space forces the light reflected from a flat Earth to display itself to the camera’s lens as circular.

Never mind that this is nothing at all what Einstein meant when he talked about the curvature of space. For the FES member, this was enough.

This sort of rationalization, moreover, is not rare, but common. It is what causes Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to deny the Holocaust. It leads Terry McAulliff to say that Al Gore won the election in 2000. It makes the lawyer in Richmond assert that smoking does not cause cancer, while the blowhards from assure us just as forcefully that it does. Each of us, in our way, is like the Black Knight from “Monty Python and the Holy Grail,” looking at our severed arm lying on the ground and adamant that it is not ours.

By using such examples as deniers of the Holocaust, carcinogenic cigs, spheroid Earth, Bush victory, etc. are you not at least implicitly admitting that there is an epistemic high ground?
I'd like to think there's such a thing as an epistemic high ground. Surely the guy who argues that the Earth is spherical is on better footing than the guy who says it is flat, purely on the basis that the one has the strength of data and evidence on his side, while the flat-Earther has only a series of ad hoc rationalizations in his arsenal.

But that's only what I would like to think. The truth is, there's just no way of forming an argument that is rationally compelling to such an extent that EVERYONE would have to agree to its validity. The problem is that the flat-Earther can simply deny that the round-Earther's footing is in any way "better" than his own. The qualifier "better" is opinion rather than fact, thus leaving him sufficient wiggle-room to deny the validity of his opponent's argument. Wish it weren't so, but that's just the way it be.
It seems to me that the ultimate test of the epistemic high ground has to be pragmatic. If we divide the world of propositions into those that are we agree are true and those that are we consider debatable, we can analyse the methodologies used to arrive at the former and apply those to the latter set.

Elsewhere you've posted about the deficiencies in the scientific method, so I must assume that you believe there is a better epistemic toolset to be had. If that is so, then you are also striving for an epistemic high ground, and I support you in doing so.
As I said, I'd like to think that there's such a thing as an epistemic high ground, but when I hear people arguing absurdities in the same of keeping science "scientific", it makes me wonder.

Certainly, I would agree that a science incorporating design as a mode of causation, is better than a science adhering strictly to chance and necessity.

But that's only how I feel. I can't PROVE that my assertion is true. Again, it is what I perceive--not what I know.
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