Think and think again


Preliminary model of the Rosencrantz and Guildenstern pavilion – Frank Gehry
(top photo)

Nobody likes to talk about epistemology anymore – but absolutely everyone should be thinking about it – now, more than ever, because when it goes badly wrong, things like understanding, compromise, government, justice and even basic sanity are seriously threatened. What is it about? Really simple – how do we know the things that we know?

There are a quite lot of different ways that we can know a thing:

  • We can have a direct experience which gives a clear unambiguous lesson.

  • We can have a hard experience that calls for us to find a lesson, even though what went wrong and what to do about it are less than completely clear.

  • We can study something humbly and in-detail, and build a frame of understanding in our head, which is generally compatible with the careful accumulated observations of many previous hard-workers.

  • We can hear something from someone who we believe is sure or correct, and because we like or trust that person, decide to believe it true ourselves.

  • We can believe that something is true because we really want it to be true.

  • We can believe that something is true or has been proven, without realizing that we were being lied-to, by whoever told us (often because their own epistemology is so weak, they believed a bad source was credible).

There are many more variations – but I think you get my point – putting your hand on a hot stove-top, leads to a distinctly different sort of acquired knowledge from say, a schoolyard rumour that kissing is what makes girls pregnant.

Dorothy Hamil says – (or does she, really?)

As long as we make clear distinctions about our information and sources – constantly remember that – this thing I know because I was there, or spoke to a direct witness – and this thing I know because of a rumour or a story of some unproven strength – we’re fine. Indeed, I enjoy a lot of weak-truths (things with very low, but not quite zero probability) clearly labeled as such, for reasons of general day-to-day narrative enchantment and access.

For example, it seems incredibly unlikely to me that aliens are messing with us (though a no-brainer that there are plenty of them out there at any given time, just by the math of the thing). Every scenario I’ve heard, blaming them for our calamitous ruination, can be destroyed with one simple conceptual tool:

  • Never explain as malice, that which may be adequately explained as stupidity.

That is, sadly, no one has to have done any of this to us – we’re quite capable of wrecking Eden all on our own, with heedlessness, lack of compassion, and a bulletproof complex of blinkered vanity beyond even the powers of modern pharmacology to pierce.

Likewise, the far out theory that the assassination of JFK was commissioned by the haberdashers of America, while insane on the surface of it, does remind us that many more are always affected than are ever accounted for in one story. Hats really did lose mass-popularity when he went hatless – and tens of thousands lost their specialist trade, soon after. (Why hipsters can get so many great antique hat-racks, so cheap).

Let me digress to say I’m pretty sure the actual explanation is that both CIA and KGB were so incredibly fearful about being implicated (or even, considering knife edge geopolitical tensions, accidentally implicating the other) that they both threw up giant clouds of smoke and obfuscation. The vast majority of theories I’ve heard, have relied upon at least one point of obviously concocted agitprop silliness, to make their case. It is at this point, very probably insoluble – in painting terms – pure mud!

But but but – I’m a writer – I have to talk to people to understand them, and hear the most vivid and interesting stories about how the world looks to them, and what it’s shown them.

If I take everything that’s a thousand-to-one against and reject it outright, I’m closing off my access to too many who believe in those ideas. If I can have an intelligent discussion about UFOs that refutes the idea that they are important to politics and human affairs, but only after having given the matter open and respectful thought and study, I can perhaps help some with the energy to investigate and advance understanding find other things to worry about that are, if no less scary, at least relevant (Nuclear war is just one obvious example of a danger requiring greater than present efforts)

Slowly, I turn

The problem enters when we start to mistake schoolyard rumour for hot-burner truth – and social media is especially troublesome here. In some ways, it is at last a really great time to be a generalist – except of course, no one is listening at all, just endlessly babbling (babel-ing) over one another – mutual-annullification. ;o)

The mere word SCIENCE – means shit. So does the word NATURAL. Cyanide is natural, folks – so are putrefaction, disease and death. Stop mistaking feel-good mystification for a description of reality.  If you don’t know basic math – learn some. Innumeracy (dangerously common) makes you a functionally illiterate citizen, when it comes to any serious debate – yes, I am saying you should be ashamed of yourself – but more importantly, you’ll be a happier person when get the basics down (and you’d be amazed how many will help you with this) – because then you will be able to evaluate information yourself, instead of being forced to rely on an (always unreliable) leader for your answers!

If you don’t know the basics of science – then admit that – just as every scientist I have ever met has a clear understanding of the vastness of what they don’t know.  And in the meantime, don’t believe any rumours you hear that sound too exciting. They are almost certainly nonsense – especially if they seem like something really scary that you better act on (by giving someone else power), right away.

The true stuff actually stays true. It does not in fact flit around back and forth, though weak epistemology followers of surveys (fancier rumours, all too often) and popular-science can be forgiven for feeling as if truth itself is changing. Nope – what changes, is what hucksters are trying to make out of our ignorance, to turn our lazy misunderstanding into cash in their pockets. No matter what the marketing people (and over-committed psychedelics) will tell you – the description does not alter the nature of the thing described.

The psychological flip-side of that is the key weirdness here – because what we understand a thing to be absolutely DOES affect how we see it, what possibilities it presents to us, and thus, how we can effectively respond to it.

Which means whenever we get lazy about thinking, and stop learning more after we’ve got a handy simplified capsule (probably rumour or emotion based) understanding of something – we’re discarding it’s actual value in the world and to us personally out of hand, and also failing to respect our own capacity for compassion and learning (which is, because ever-expanding, effectively infinite).

Think about it – ask your heart, too. Then think again. Stay open and curious. Study everything! Ask-a-friend is also good! (and no, you aren’t ever limited to just one – the grand-prize actually gets closer, with every call out that you make) ;o)

Most of all – admit the difference between the things you know you know – and the things that you heard in the schoolyard. Those categories can also be seen as “Conceptual frameworks which are mature and have proven themselves practical” and “Conceptual frameworks of such questionable rigour that I can’t even kiss someone, or I’ll probably get them pregnant!”

And no that’s not a Gehry, silly – it’s a pile of HVAC junk stacked up neatly to await the garbageman.  Almost certainly.  ;o)

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