Human beings are obsessed with knowledge. We instinctively believe there are facts about the world which are true, which can be known, and which explain our experience of reality. But real knowledge – thoughts about reality which are true – is incredibly elusive. Human beings aren’t very good at dealing with this.
This post is quite a long and mainly philosophical one, and part of a thought in progress.
I Intuitive knowledge
The earliest forms of knowledge, it’s safe to assume, were the result of intuitive mental “theory-building” combined with instinct. We experience things and intuitively create “theories” to explain them. When we experience something that clearly contradicts our theory so far, we either amend the theory to fit the new information, or (more often) ignore what we experienced and try to forget it as soon as we can.
We do all of this automatically, without any conscious decisions taking place.1
This intuitive knowledge is generally very useful for dealing with things that don’t change too quickly, but it is extremely rigid and doesn’t easily adapt to new situations.
It’s also strongly influenced by other forms of knowledge, which I imagine developed later in human (pre-)history.
II Introspective knowledge
The next form of knowledge might have been the result of conscious introspection: you experience something new, and it clashes so terrifically with what you know about the world that you find yourself trying to consciously figure out how to explain it.
This gives you more flexibility: you can employ the human knack for metaphor (“this thing is kind of like that other thing”) and create thoughts that are more complex and abstract. Unlike intuitive knowledge, it involves our conscious thought and we can make conscious decisions about what to believe.
Unlike intuitive knowledge, introspective knowledge is free from the restrictions of direct experience. This enables us to reach better, more general explanations, but also means a lot of our “theories” can be completely wrong and still maintain a hold on us; the more abstract a theory, the more difficult it is to encounter direct evidence against it.
III Cultural knowledge
I imagine that Introspective knowledge gave rise to what I consider the most powerful form of knowledge in human history: cultural knowledge.
Cultural knowledge includes everything people “know” because it’s what everyone around them “knows”. One example is prejudice against homosexual activity – which became common in the West only a few centuries ago but many people seem to consider “natural”. Primitive religions are another good example, but there are many, many others.
Imagine you’re part of an ancient tribe. The oldest woman in the tribe, known and respected for her experience and wisdom in all practical things, tells you and your family “a very important secret”: there is a deity – a being with powers unlike your own – which controls the growing of the wheat that sustains the tribe.
Like people, sometimes the deity is happy, and sometimes it is angry. But when the sun is shining and the deity is happy, the tribe’s crops bloom; and when the weather is bad and the deity is angry, the wheat fails, and the weak ones starve.
Because you don’t have any better knowledge to work with, and because your life truly depends on understanding how your source of nourishment works, you probably believe this story.
What happens next is that you tell your children about this deity, and they tell their children more or less the same story, and very quickly, your whole community comes to “know” that this is how the world works. (As the Dothraki often tell a baffled Daenerys Targaryen in A Song of Ice and Fire, “it is known.”)
IV The power of conformity
Cultural knowledge arises from introspective thought and we gain it through conscious social experience, especially in our childhood, though we usually forget where it came from within a few years.
Although it spreads in a conscious way, passed from one person to another using language, it becomes anchored in far deeper unconcious processes.
If you refuse to accept the social group’s beliefs, you may find yourself quite alone. Most people will not be open to talking about such things when you refuse to see “the obvious truth”.
You may have a feeling that what you’ve been told is nonsense, but that doesn’t mean you have a better theory to offer spontaneously. The easy way out is to accept what everyone around you knows to be true, or if you don’t accept it, to keep quiet; this saves you and others the torment of being a skeptic amongst conformists.
Because of the immense power of cultural knowledge, I’m convinced this is the most common form of knowledge. It doesn’t require any effort from any individual, only the repetition of information, and conformity. This means almost every thing that we know is probably cultural knowledge; it might not all be quite as false as the belief about the wheat god, but it could potentially carry all kinds of falsities that we never notice or question because we’re busy with other things.
V Scientific knowledge
I think of intuitive, introspective, and cultural knowledge as the basic forms, but there are certainly others. One I’d especially like to consider: scientific knowledge.
In the terms I used above, scientific knowledge is a hybrid form. It mostly rejects intuitive knowledge; it is based on introspective knowledge, but makes use of the tool that gives cultural knowledge its power – social sharing of information.
Scientific knowledge is, to me, a form of cultural knowledge which embraces and encourages the skeptics. The magnitude of that innovation can’t be exaggerated: it may well be one of the biggest steps taken by humankind since the evolution of complex (syntactic) language.
VI The meaning of science
Doing science, being involved in the creation of scientific knowledge, means making the effort to introspectively consider and challenge all intuitive and cultural beliefs. But it also means to share your skeptic thoughts, in the effort to socially form a theory that is more useful than any other theory so far.
A lot of people think that scientific knowledge is even more like cultural knowledge: that what scientists think about their area of investigation is merely an opinion; that scientific knowledge is just dogma; that any experienced scientist in some field can tell you the truth about anything in that field.
People who think these things are mostly wrong.
While scientific communities are susceptible to dogma and orthodoxy, the scientific method and the scientific culture are brilliantly designed to encourage serious skepticism regarding established knowledge. As a result, scientific orthodoxies never last more than a few decades in fields where the scientific method is functional and research is active.
Individual scientists do have opinions, more than knowledge. But scientific opinion is based on relatively serious investigation of realtively well-defined issues – unlike everyday opinions, which are based on cultural knowledge and relate to vague intuitive questions about reality.
But scientists do not know reality, and discovering reality is not the goal of scientific theory. The goal is to provide a better explanation than any other explanation so far, which means that an even better explanation should be just around the corner (that is, probably less than 20 years away.)
Because of this, it’s safe to assume that this means we’re slowly getting closer to true knowledge of reality, but there’s no reason to believe we’ll ever reach it.
A scientifically literate individual informed about the current state of some field can tell you about the most realistic understanding available for that field’s set of phenomena. But if that individual is intellectually honest, they will not call this “the truth”. Just a close approximation which is close to a good match for the information available so far.
VII Convergence and confusion
In the past century or two, humanity is experiencing a very odd transformation. We are, as always, obsessed with knowledge; but we have developed scientific knowledge enough that some results – gravity, atoms and molecules, bacteria and viruses, et cetera – are understood so well that we can really make use of them in our day-to-day life. At the very least, we can use technology which is based on them, and we do, every day.
What this leads to is the integration of scientific knowledge into our cultural knowledge. When we culturally-know something, we think of it as “true reality” – even if the original source is skeptical, provisionary, scientific.
Once a belief becomes cultural knowledge, it doesn’t change nearly as easily as actual scientific knowledge.
Unlike intuitive and cultural knowledge, scientific knowledge is not created to help us deal with the world around us; science is about understanding for the sake of understanding.
So we end up with cultural knowledge that we have a hard time shaking off, but also isn’t very useful in our day-to-day lives. Even worse, it was never meant to be “the truth”, and it’s probably a decade old – or five, or ten2 – and we intuitively think of it as “the truth” because nobody in our day-to-day interactions dares question it. Trying to find out what current thoery says doesn’t help, because current theory is less mature and useful, and still needs a lot of testing before it can be relied on.
It’s important to understand that this applies to every single human being. It also applies to all scientists, for everything outside of the fields they’ve seriously studied.
Sometimes, cultural biases and orthodoxy can even creep in on a scientist’s home turf and “contaminate” research – but the scientific method will clean it up within a few years if that research becomes well-known.
VIII Practical questions
What should we do about all of this? I really don’t know. It’s not my field, and I doubt there’s a definitive answer – or a close approximation – in any field, anyway. (Philosophy is even worse than science at reaching definitive answers.)
What I personally try to do is simply to identify my beliefs about the world, and try to identify where they come from and how important it is to me to hang on to them.
I try to keep in mind that “knowledge” is an illusion; that the most reliable kind of “knowledge” is the intuitive kind, which is, however, also the least accurate and the least flexible.
I try to keep in mind that anything I think I “know” could be a cultural bias. I try to remember that this applies to scientists, too, and that even the best theory is just a reliable approximation so far, and could change deeply within my lifetime.
Most of all, I try to recognize my biases, and often have to decide whether I can live with them or have to reconsider what I “know”.
What I try to never do is defend a bias simply because I happen to hold it. If I realize I don’t know why I think some thought, that thought is suspicious and I keep it to myself until I’ve looked into it again more seriously.
I can’t say any of this is fun or easy – or even that I go through with it as much as I’d like to – but considering my (introspective) beliefs about knowledge, I’d (intuitively) be uncomfortable with doing it any other way.
If you’ve made it so far in this unusually long post, maybe you’d like to share some of your thoughts/bliefs/”knowledge”. Did I miss any important form of knowledge? Is there any better way to deal with the weaknesses of the forms I discussed? Is there any point you’d like me to say more about?
The subject of this piece is one I’ve enjoyed thinking about for years, and I’m not sure where I stole my ideas from. A few sources that were probably influential, in no particular order, are:
- Daniel Greenberg, Worlds in Creation. Sudbury Valley School Press
- Paul Graham, What Can’t be Said. Essay on paulgraham.com
- Noam Chomsky, New Horizons in the Study of Language and Mind. Cambridge University Press
- David W. Lightfoot’s introduction in Noam Chomsky, Syntactic Structures. Mouton De Gruyter
- James A. Michener, The Source: A Novel. Random House (see my review on this blog)
- What exactly “conscious” and “decision” are would be the topic for another long post, or maybe a whole new blog. [↩]
- For example, I heard that what is considered “normal body temperature” is the result of findings from one small study over a hundred years ago, and not considered accurate anymore. [↩]