So after all, I do know something! (Just another story – Part 3)

This is the last post in a series that tires to give a decent account of scientific epistemology (see also Part 1 and Part 2).

I say decent, because the mainstream scientific epistemologies that I have encountered so far seem fairly oblivious to a simple (and scientifically undeniable) fact. Knowledge is something that resides inside brains, and brains follow certain rules, shaped by evolution, development and experience (or, on other levels, shaped by genetics, physiology and previous input). Hence, knowledge (scientific or otherwise) does not exist in a vacuum and should not be described as an absolute account of objective reality. Knowledge is emphatically made of flesh (as in neurons, synapses, action potentials, signal integration, genetic expression patterns, glial cells, the lot) and obeys all the rules discovered by science (plus many other rules that we still need to uncover). Neglecting this unfortunate reality is unscientific, naïve and counter-productive; it is also, in my opinion, the main reason why so many scientists find it difficult to defend their world-views in front of non-scientific audiences or challenges. I am writing this In Defence of Science, not in opposition to it, because I think that acknowledging it is useful for a few reasons:

  1. It is more precise than any “metaphysical” account (I say “metaphysical” for lack of a better word: I mean those accounts that describe knowledge without considering how it relates to minds and brains) of both knowledge and “facts” (where facts are seen as “known properties of reality”). Therefore, the present account is, according to my own definition, a good model.
  2. It highlights how and why even scientific knowledge is uncertain, and puts the spotlight on the fact that the biases of the “knower” will always introduce errors, even if the knower is a scientist. Hence, if a scientist is well aware of these points, her/his own efforts to overcome her/his biases will be encouraged and focussed. Hopefully this could help to produce better science.
  3. It explains to scientists why and how non-scientists find most accounts of typical scientific world-views simplistic, incomplete, and/or unpalatable. It also contributes to reducing the vulnerability of science to accusations of simplifications and narrow-mindedness.
  4. It neatly explains (with the aid of Cognitive Attraction) why it is so difficult to change anybody’s mind, even when armed with the most rational arguments and the best evidence (more on this will follow in the future).
  5. Finally, saying all this does not, in any rational way, diminish the value of scientific knowledge, as I will try to demonstrate below.

I’ve said before that I believe that reality exists, and that it applies to everyone in the same way. The peculiarity of my discourse is my stance on knowledge: I’m essentially denying the existence of uncompromisingly ‘objective’ knowledge. But I do so with some well-defined limits: although every model is by definition an approximation, and therefore none can claim to possess an absolute truth, it is still possible to claim that some model is undeniably false, making some “falsehood” claims absolutely true. For example, claiming that the earth is not flat is certainly something that is objectively true. Furthermore, claims that apply to models, without direct or indirect references to the one and only reality, can also be absolutely true: the obvious example here is mathematics that can be used to create objective truths such as “two plus two equals four”.

This isn’t trivial, and neither nihilistic, because in the end it allows me to claim that evolutionary theory is inherently better (as in “less wrong”, and by a large margin!) than creationism and intelligent design (ID) theories (please see also my premises on what I think is “good”). I can also claim that the statement above is an objective, undeniable and unquestionable fact, and I can do it even if I started from the premises that all our knowledge is unreliable, and that most of what you think you know is just another story.

In other words, models of reality (knowledge and/or beliefs) can and should be compared with one another, using, whenever possible, direct or indirect experience (also known as “evidence”) to establish which one is better fit for purpose. If the purpose is to describe reality in the most precise way it becomes undeniable that the epistemological value of knowledge built upon evidence (AKA science) is inherently higher than what is based on a-priori beliefs.

That’s pretty cool in my own nerdish book, but does require some revisions to my premises: either all I know is wrong/unreliable, or it isn’t – I can’t have it both ways!

Right, the solution is already in the definitions I’ve given so far: because all I know is an approximation of reality, my knowledge (no matter how good or complete I think it is) can never be considered to be the source of unlimited, unquestionably true statements or predictions about everything. However, most models can be used to find some unquestionable truths, if and when they apply to abstract elements of the model itself. Finally, if one wants, it is also possible to use our more or less direct experience of the world (evidence), to rate different and contrasting models, by seeing which one can explain better what our senses tell us.

This latter process can be done only if one admits that reality exists and that its rules apply to every one of us. In more detail: in case I am privately rating antagonist models, then I need to accept the idea that only one reality interacts with me, and that its rules do not change from time to time. This is why I’ve briefly described this assumption in my first post, and is the only reason why I can say that I know that the evolutionary theory is superior to ID. I can, because I don’t believe in miracles, that is, I believe that the rules of reality do not occasionally change.

I can also say that this superiority is a true and unquestionable fact, because saying so implies that facts do exist, and if you accept the existence of facts, then you’re accepting that there is one reality, that what happens in it doesn’t depend on who experiences it (yes, who experiences it will change how reality is perceived and interpreted, but that’s another matter), and that the rules that govern what happens are not subject to an external force able to arbitrarily change them. In other words, you accept that facts do happen, and if you do, I do not see how you may argue that the evolutionary theory is less convincing than ID. If you don’t believe in facts, and therefore think that there is no unique reality (and this applies to both options, the “there is no reality” and “there are multitudes of equivalent realities”), then you shouldn’t be challenging any statement at all: if there is no unique reality, there is no truth, and hence challenging a statement (claiming that it is false) becomes meaningless.

I can now update my initial claims: not all our knowledge is in the form of models of reality, because some knowledge applies to knowledge itself. The first kind of knowledge (one or another model) is always inherently questionable, or known to be fallible, because its job is to describe reality by approximation. The second kind of knowledge can be seen as “knowledge about knowledge” and can occasionally be considered absolute: that’s when a model is used in abstract terms (2+2=4) or when two antagonist models are compared in order to decide which one describes better what can be experienced directly (as in “introduces fewer errors”).

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Posted in New Atheism, Philosophy, Premises, Science
9 comments on “So after all, I do know something! (Just another story – Part 3)
  1. […] rubbish”) because I don’t see any contradiction. To know why, you will have to wait for the next post in the series, please stay […]

  2. […] hopefully allowed me to clarify a few things about knowledge, beliefs, narratives and the apparent lack of ontological distinction between them. At the same time, I’ve forcefully argued that beliefs that are grounded on […]

  3. […] far, I’ve discussed what I can recognise as absolutely true (very little), how all the rest of my knowledge has to be assumed to be imperfect and why it is still possible […]

  4. […] me to move forward. The first step was to explore the limits of knowledge, and see if one can claim anything at all. At first sight, if one can’t distinguish between knowledge and beliefs, and if anyway all […]

  5. […] even more important than proving that something is right (assuming the latter is possible, and in my opinion, it isn’t).- How many times has Philosophy generated the conceptual tools that made a subject […]

  6. […] possible course of action”. What is possible (following the already seen patter explored for competing models) is to compare two alternatives, and provide tentative conclusions such as “based on the […]

  7. […] There are some very important exceptions, as I have noted before. […]

  8. […] real in any direct sense, evaluating concepts in terms of how real they are is short-sighted: concepts have a degree of usefulness, which strictly depends on the applied context or domain of […]

  9. […] any given world-view, being conceptual, must be somewhat wrong. Thus, one should compare world-views in terms of how fit for a given purpose they are, or, in more […]

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