I am going to start this post with a disclaimer. I do NOT have all the answers. I am taking a philosophy class. I am a technology person. I will be speaking in VERY broad terms and using a VERY broad brush. I know there are exceptions to almost everything, I’ve met most of them.
My topic today comes from my philosophy class, a project I’ve been stewing on for the last 12 years, an internet video I watched yesterday, and several conversations I’ve had with people. This is not fully formed yet, and I still have a lot of research to do on it. I however did want to post this out there for thoughts. I want to talk about how people think about knowledge and how they gauge truth and how that impacts society in general.
Foundational thinking: this could be summed up with Plato’s concept of JTB (justified true belief), In order to say that you “know” something you have to be able to make assertions that are correct and infer a correct conclusion from it. That you can define its parts. That in order to know something you have to “prove it” with some “logical” process is the concept.
The problem of infinite recursion: In order to say you know something you must define all of its components, but in order to define its components you must define the definitions of all the sub-components, but in order to define all of the sub-components you must define all the sub-sub-components… etc… it goes on for ever. There are several proposed solutions to this… one of them is network thinking
example of infinite recursion:
- duck = type of bird
- type = a category or classification
- of = expressing a relationship between a part and a whole
- bird = a flying animal
- category = a grouping of something
- or = a word used to link alternatives
- classification = …
- …. you get the idea.
Network thinking: The concept that in order to “know” something you simply need to have enough pieces of data in your “network” that are congruent with that information. If you have information from 3 or 4 sources and they all seem to be congruent with each other, that information may be considered as “known”. That number may change depending on the person, circumstances, or type of information under question.
Network: A lose term meaning a source of information. It could be a literal computer network or social network. It could be a loosely related group of publications and professional contacts, it can be personal experience. ANY source of information, data or opinion can be in a network.
From the top
I know there are many forms of thinking and I did NOT cover them all. I did cover the two I want to talk about though. In my parents generation and some of my generation the predominate form of thinking (that I have seen) is the Foundational type of thinking. There are MANY flaws with this mode of thinking, it leads to infinite recursion, as well as the general philosophy that TRUTH can never be truly found or known, because even if we found it we could never really know it. My generation really bore out the fruit of the idea that truth can never be found. It lead to wide spread hopelessness and a general lack of purpose. As a response to this the concept of a “network” of truth or thought has come out of the mix. The idea was if we can never “know” for sure, if we know enough points that do not conflict with a concept that we can probably assume it is true.
This network model is applied by individuals in both the macro and the micro. Inside the individual and outside. In order for a network to remain stable its nodes must be congruent, and because people inherently tend to seek stability incongruity becomes a destabilizing factor. These networks are not just used in the formation scientific ideas, but in the formation of self worth, sexuality (I don’t mean gender preference I mean how they think about sex… the brain is the biggest sex organ in the human body), spirituality, appearance and much more. When in-congruent ideas are presented to an individual in this context the in-congruent idea is not just a challenge to the concept… it is a personal assault at the deepest levels. The network node (idea) in question is a part of the stability of this person, if this becomes in-congruent, it might devalue or change something else, causing a cascade, or even worse… systemic questioning. Because to question the network is to reject the network or at the very least cause an incongruity that cannot be reconciled. When faced with this type of threat it is simply easier to reject the threat (the person doing the questioning or the idea) and push them out of reach that to solve the conflict of thought.
People who function primarily in a network model require many points of contact to know things, including themselves. If a person functions in network model, the network tends to be fundamental to the identity of this person. It defines who they are, who they are not. The more points of contact they have and the more congruent it is the more stable the information base is, the more stable the person feels about their world view, about them self. I think this is very evident in the emergence of social media and its profound impact on first world culture.
Once someone is pushed out of a network, they either find a new more appropriate network OR they make one of their own. Each social network in turn becomes a specialized condensed version of a social structure, philosophy, brand or concept. Although it works the same with other networks social networks are easier to visualize, but news networks, computer networks, and religions work the same general way. Something that the internet age has inadvertently provided is the ability to make truth virtually irrelevant.
These groups (or networks) do not bother to really argue with each other or debate facts any more. Instead, they manufacture what the OTHER GROUPS represent and argue against their version of the other group. (I believe this was known in the past as a straw man argument.) The local group’s version of the “other group” (or argument) is often the worst possible representation of the outside group. Because the arguments and representations are made so provocative… they get repeated and talked about… Even if no one can prove them. Our media, in order to get ratings, pushes this information out there because it is so provocative, making it MORE provocative each time. Our internet algorithms do this too… the most talked about things are PUSHED to the top of the rankings (even if they are NOT true). This pushing and splintering of the internet has caused extreme polarization. Groups that are fundamentally against each other not just in idea or principal but to the very core for reasons that they themselves don’t necessarily even know any more.
We have built a system that is literally designed to push popular information into the forefront. The information in the forefront is usually the worst. Each network (social group, religion, news outlet, political party, economic class, medical journal, scientific community…) becomes its own isolated network, which allows false ideas to run rampant. Because so little is fact checked and so little logic is used, it allows for micro (or macro) cults to be formed. Each group targeting what the see as “the enemy” and vilifying them. Add to the mix, our current culture is designed (or functions, take your pick) in such a way that questioning the group can, and very well may, get you kicked out of the group to which you desperately need to belong to in order to maintain your identity.
You can add in people who intentionally spread misinformation and on top of that the people who report incorrect information just because they don’t know better. It makes finding real facts incredibly difficult for the average person. Making it even more difficult even IF someone actually wanted to look up the truth of a situation or the facts involved in something to distinguish between fact and fiction.
In the end… this leaves us with groups of people who are highly emotionally charged who are unwilling to be reasoned with. Who are don’t want to be criticized or questioned. Doing so automatically disqualifies you from being able to contribute to the group. This is NOT a good place to be. It allows room for people who are manipulative, persuasive or coercive to build networks of their own cults.
While you read this I am sure you had a network/group or two cross your mind that you believe may do this, please be willing to consider that someone somewhere in the world is probably looking at YOU thinking you are in a network doing the same thing. You are not exempt from this. If you got offended at the statement you should probably consider it even more.
Is belief good enough for knowledge?
Interesting question, I think it comes down to how you frame it. I believe… Belief is a prerequisite of knowledge. If you do not believe something exists or can happen how can you have knowledge of it or conceive it? The testing of belief leads to knowledge if you pursue it, however it does not have to. I will put in a joke I heard from a science teacher as a thought.
A man starts an experiment (this is not a very humane experiment… but this is hypothetical so take it with a grain of salt). This man takes a frog, sets it on the table, and slams his hand own on the table behind it. The frog makes a wild leap. The man measures it. The man then proceeds to cut off one of the front legs of the frog and stitch it up. He repeats his experiment. The frog jumps, but it is lopsided and does not go nearly as far, and the man measures the results. The man then proceeds to cut off the other front leg and stitch it up. He en repeats his experiment. The frog slides forward a bit, the man measures the results again. He then cuts off one of the hind legs, and does the same thing. This time when he slams his and on the table the sad frog just kinda slides forward a bit with one leg. He measures the results. Finally the man removes the frog’s last leg… he repeats the experiment. The frog doesn’t move. The conclusion the man came to… Frogs with no legs are deaf. As a side note he was able to repeat his results reliably under all conditions.
I know that was long, but I think it made my point: just because we have observed the world, measured it, and even tested it, that does not mean our conclusions will always be knowledge. Some of the things our grandparents thought of as knowledge are truly laughable now. I read a science book from the 1890’s and it was pretty funny. Yet at the time it was treated as fact, people who disagreed were uncouth or uneducated. Will the thoughts I have, or the thoughts you have be just as dated or laughable to our grandchildren? In my opinion… probably.
So according to what I understand so far of philosophy, knowledge is belief that we/I have tested to our/my satisfaction. There MAY always be another question, test, or vantage point that could blow it away. That however does not mean there always will be, and I think that was the point of one of the speakers we may never know if what we had was true knowledge because we may never know if it could stand all possible testing.
I believe the average person has thousands of beliefs that are untested in their head that they rely on every day to function. I say belief because many people have not actually thought through or even considered them. They are innate. People believe they will continue existing tomorrow, they trust in social contracts, they believe that brushing their teeth will keep their teeth clean. Have you ever “tested” to see if brushing your teeth actually makes them cleaner? or prevents cavities? I mean, it makes “sense”… but then again in the 1890’s so did the theory that steam caused earthquakes. You believe brushing your teeth helps and there is nothing wrong with that. We have to believe things every day. We could not possibly “prove” everything in life. Everyone has underlying beliefs (in my opinion… my belief). We accept that some things are “knowledge” because others have told us, does that count as knowledge? Your dentist told you that brushing your teeth helps keep them clean and cavity free. Does that make it true? Did he test it? Or did someone tell him? Was it in some medical journal? Do I trust the medical journal? How do I test that? What about that infomercial on the TV at 2AM should I trust what it tells me?
My point is we all believe a lot of things. We think we know some things. Belief has to be enough because it is the only way to find knowledge. If you don’t believe matter is made up of atoms how or why would you bother to look? Why would you bother to conduct an experiment that atoms exist, unless you believe they exist and you want to prove your belief right or wrong.
So finally to address the starting question: Is belief enough for knowledge? Possibly. It is possible to believe something that is knowledge to others without knowing or proving it. It is possible to use belief to head asymptotically towards knowledge. However by definition belief is not knowledge. Belief is what we make of it, it is a tool. We need it to function, and we can use it to lead us to more tested belief, or we can stake a claim in belief and use belief itself as rational. It is nothing more than what we make of it.
Just my 2 cents. 🙂