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How To Ask Questions 6

Caeli: Hi, Elliot.
Elliot: Hi, Caeli.
Caeli: I believe you were going to summarize true epistemology.
Elliot: We have ideas. It's not critical what they are. What's critical is that we evolve them, by thinking of new ideas that may be improvements, and using criticism to reject flawed ideas. In this way, we can solve our problems and make progress.
Caeli: What is the justified, true belief view you mentioned earlier?
Elliot: It says that knowledge is justified, true beliefs. Every part of this is wrong.
Caeli: Knowledge shouldn't be true?
Elliot: Newton's laws of physics are incorrect. We know that now. But they contain truth in them. They were a great discovery. The insistence that knowledge must be perfectly true in order to count is silly. Nothing we have is perfect.
Caeli: OK, what about belief?
Elliot: They mean we only have a certain piece of knowledge if we believe it. But people have all sorts of knowledge that isn't beliefs. For example, our intuition contains knowledge.
Elliot: Further, there's knowledge that isn't in people at all. A book can contain knowledge even if no one currently knows the things in the book. Books don't have beliefs.
Caeli: Are you sure about intuition?
Elliot: If it didn't contain knowledge, it'd be random how it worked. But in real life, it reacts fairly appropriately to a wide variety of situations. Those appropriate reactions demonstrate it has some knowledge of those situations.
Caeli: Alright, and what about justification?
Elliot: The way they tell it, you could hold a true belief for the wrong reasons, and that's not knowledge. You have to also have justified believing that. You need to actually know it's true.
Caeli: That makes sense.
Elliot: It's true that sometimes people adopt beliefs without proper consideration, and it shouldn't be assumed that they have deep knowledge of the subject even if they happen to be right. But there is a wide range of possibilities in the middle. In fact, in every real case people have more than zero reason, but also less than perfect reasons.
Elliot: Basically what they're saying is that unless you can prove that your belief is true, with unlimited precision and perfection, then it's not really knowledge.
Caeli: Why would they say something like that? What's the point?
Elliot: Because they don't allow for the idea of imperfect knowledge. They want total certainty. And you can't have total certainty without complete proof. Unfortunately for them, you can't have those things at all.
Caeli: You can't possibly have certainty, no matter what? Are you certain?
Elliot: That is my best understanding. One reason is that no matter what reasons you give to be certain of a proposition, I can question how you are certain those reasons work. Whatever proof you give, you'll need to give a proof of that proof. And whatever you say, I'll ask again. And again. You might try to invent a proof that proves something and proves itself. But that won't work. There will be some logic involved in proving itself. A reason it does prove itself. And that can be questioned.
Caeli: What's the point of questioning everything like that?
Elliot: There isn't any point. It's not useful to do so. It's just a thought experiment which rules out perfect, complete certainty. To be absolutely sure you're right, you have to answer all possible policies for objecting or questioning your position.
Caeli: I see. So, how do parents use false epistemology?
Elliot: I've actually given a speech about the consequences of the justified, true belief theory for parenting. You can read it at this link.
Caeli: Cool, a speech.
Elliot: *bows*
Caeli: What are those stars?
Elliot: Sometimes they indicate emphasis, but in this case they indicate an action. *smile*
Caeli: *understands*
Caeli: Do many parents really use the JTB (justified, true belief) approach? I hadn't even heard of it before.
Elliot: It's rarely on their mind explicitly. But the JTB approach to knowledge has informed most epistemology, and is implicitly behind a lot of educational theory. And parents are not embarrassed to be anti-fallibilist, so the JTB approach, with it's notion of certain truth, is behind a lot of that.
Caeli: You said a lot of things. What's fallibilism?
Elliot: It's the belief that we can be wrong, even if we feel really sure. It means that we can't have certain, perfect, truth. It means we can make mistakes even when we think we haven't.
Caeli: That sounds pretty obvious.
Elliot: Indeed. But, alas, it is not.
Caeli: In what way are parents anti-fallibilist?
Elliot: They often insist that they are right. They say they know best. They don't admit that the child might possibly be right.
Caeli: Maybe they usually think it's too unlikely that the child is right to bother about.
Elliot: Perhaps. But that's not very different. And it's not on any better of a philosophical basis. What, exactly, is the procedure for determining the probability that a child might be right?
Caeli: I don't know.
Elliot: There isn't one.
Caeli: How can parents be so certain they are right about everything when the divorce rate is so high? Or when divorces exist at all. Each one indicates that adults made a mistake, or in all probability, many mistakes.
Elliot: That's a good point. Parents don't apply their certainty to their whole lives. They only do it to their children, and only some of the time. Plus, perhaps, a few other things that they are irrational about.
Elliot: An interesting fact is that there is no subject that all parents are irrational about. For every single issue, some parents treat it in a perfectly reasonable manner. This goes a long way towards proving that rational parenting is possible.
Elliot: So, there is no fact that all parents are certain of. Or put another way, for any disagreement with a child, some parents would think the child may have a point. There is never a total consensus against the child, on any issue, even among parents.
Elliot: One of the consequences is that one can't reasonably believe that any of these issues are completely obvious, and certainly not that any view on them is certain truth. For all of them, some parents who seem perfectly reasonable would disagree.
Caeli: You keep mentioning parents doing this or that thing which is very unreasonable. But is it really that common?
Elliot: Yes. Try to think about your own parents, and those of your friends. Think about parents you know now, and how you've seen them treat their kids. And consider how you see families depicted on TV.
Caeli: Hmm. I see your point some. But I'm still not sure if you're exaggerating.
Elliot: I'll try to point out examples to you in the future.
Caeli: OK. That sounds fun!
Caeli: What are some bad consequences when parents use JTB? I know you have a speech about this, but can you just say briefly?
Elliot: Sure. Justifications are very complex because they need to be perfect, so children can't make their own. Truths are hard to come by, so children can't expect to find any. If the parent thinks he has the truth, he won't be interested in criticism or objections. Anything but listening obediently is a waste of time. And when parents give justifications, children won't understand them in full, and will have to take them on faith.
Caeli: That's terrible.
Elliot: Yeah.
Caeli: You said that even though JTB isn't on people's minds explicitly, it informs a lot of educational theory. What did you mean?
Elliot: That's right. I meant that even though people aren't thinking to themselves "my belief is justified and true, and the students' beliefs aren't justified" and stuff like that, the ideas are still there. Students are expected to learn the truths that their teachers impart. That's the dynamic. The dynamic is not joint truth seeking. No one expects the students to have any good ideas, or to disagree with their teacher, except in very limited ways.
Caeli: Aren't there in-class discussions?
Elliot: Yes, but either they don't reach a conclusion, or the teacher is considered the arbiter of who was right.
Elliot: A good example is tests. A test doesn't determine what the truth is. Its purpose is to determine if the pupil has learned the master's view. If children frequently disagreed with teachers, then the whole idea of testing wouldn't make sense, because grading is in terms of the instructor's ideas.
Caeli: I have a feeling that you have more to say about tests.
Elliot: I sure do. What are they for? Not the child's benefit. If he's happy with what he knows about the subject, he doesn't need a test. And if he isn't, he needs another lesson, not a test. The point of tests is for the teacher to find out if a child is learning the material. Why? So that if he isn't, he can be forced to. Tests are to deal with children who don't want to learn the ideas their teacher presents. If the child did want to be there, there'd be no point.
Caeli: Which do you think is more disrespectful to children, schools or parents?
Elliot: Parents, by far. Which is unfortunate, given that schools blatantly use force against unwilling pupils, assume they are right, grade children, and so on.
Caeli: What's wrong with grading?
Elliot: It's a way to pressure people to conform to the teacher's ideas. If you don't, you'll get a low grade. If everyone was there because they wanted to be, and was learning what they wanted to, no one would care about grades. They wouldn't be competing with each other to best do what the teacher wants, they'd just be living their own lives, and many of them would be doing different things.
Caeli: Isn't the problem with public schools the lack of funding to get good teachers?
Elliot: It's possible that is a problem, but one can't blame having entirely the wrong approach on funding. Imagine a parent who spanked and said it's because he is poor. That's insane. Being poor may cause problems, but it certainly didn't force him to hit his child.
Caeli: We've gone far astray. Let's go over some of the other false epistemic ideas. How about induction?
Elliot: Let's skip induction. It's a major topic by itself. So is foundationalism. Let's do the others for now.
Caeli: OK, how about instrumentalism.
Elliot: Instrumentalism says that ideas are just instruments to be used to make factual predictions. Related is positivism, which says the only true knowledge is scientific. An extreme version says that statements which aren't about science and prediction are meaningless.
Caeli: What should we use ideas for besides to make predictions?
Elliot: To explain things.
Caeli: You mention explanation a lot. Do you want to say anything more about it?
Elliot: Predictions are very limited. They tell us the train will arrive at 5 PM, or the atom will perform certain motions in the experiment. Explanations answer all our other questions. They tell us why the train will arrive then, and how trains can move, and whatever else we might like to know about trains. A prediction can tell us if a certain design for railroad tracks will break under a train of a certain weight. But an explanation can tell us why one design is better than another, and what the principles behind each design are. Only with an explanation will we be able to make changes or improvements. Predictions have no reach. It's just a fact, and that's it. If you want to know about another design, you'll need another prediction. And if you want to know about a train of another weight, you'll need another prediction. But when we understand things, we'll know there's no point checking a heavier train if we know that the tracks can't hold this one. And we'll know that isn't universally true: if the heavier train is longer, so the weight is distributed over a longer length of tracks, then that may be fine. There's so much stuff to understand. Understanding is what explanations are for.
Caeli: Oh, that's lovely.
Elliot: Logical positivism, by the way, which says only scientific statements are meaningful, is not a scientific claim. So it denies being meaningful. That's a good example of how we can criticize a theory without needing to observe or test anything.
Caeli: What if they changed it to say that all non-scientific statements except logical positivism are meaningless?
Elliot: Then they are reducing the reach of their view, without providing an explanation for why it doesn't fully apply.
Caeli: What if they came up with a reason?
Elliot: That'd be fine. We could discuss if it was good or not. Can you think of a reasonable reason that all philosophy except logical positivism might be meaningless?
Caeli: No. I can't even think of a reason that any philosophy should be meaningless. That would mean all our conversations are pointless, but I like them.
Elliot: Well noticed. The logical positivism theory has distant consequences, such as asserting that our conversation is meaningless. And if those seem silly, then logical positivism itself must be equally silly.
Caeli: What about relativism?
Elliot: Relativism says that the truth is relative to your perspective. It's different for each person, or each culture. One of the unfortunate consequences of relativism is it means we have no common ground with other people, and therefore the problem of communication cannot possibly be solved.
Caeli: Why is that unfortunate?
Elliot: Because people do talk to each other, and therefore relativism is false.
Caeli: How about solipsism.
Elliot: Solipsism says that no one else exists; they are just my imagination.
Caeli: I'm not imaginary.
Elliot: I know, it's silly. There's a joke about it. A philosophy professor gives a lecture on solipsism. Afterwards a student comes up and says, "That was a great lecture. I totally agree with you." And the teacher replies, "You agree that you're just part of my imagination?"
Caeli: Haha. They'll argue about which one of them is real all day.
Elliot: I expect they won't. They'll get bored and stop long before that. If they actually enjoyed arguing for entire days then they wouldn't be solipsists.
Caeli: What's the sponge theory of brains?
Elliot: It says that brains are like sponges. They absorb whatever ideas touch them. This is useful for saying that TV is dangerous, but little else.
Caeli: Isn't it also useful for saying books are dangerous.
Elliot: Yes :) And people used to do that. But they don't any longer. There is no explanation of why this argument no longer applies to books, they just stopped applying it. But as we've said, you can't arbitrarily restrict the reach of explanations. On a similar note, shouldn't the sponge theory reach to adults?
Caeli: Do people really take this stuff seriously?
Elliot: They don't say it in quite these words. But they are often scared about "influences" such as TV. They think children are unable to be discriminating; that their brains absorb ideas with no choice involved.
Caeli: How do you know that the don't?
Elliot: Well, every teacher knows that the sponge theory is false. His lectures often go in one ear and out the other. It's hard to get students to learn the material. They don't just absorb it automatically.
Caeli: What's the difference? Why do children pick up so many ideas from TV, and so few from school?
Elliot: The difference is that people learn things when they want to be there and like what they're learning, but rarely otherwise.
Elliot: By the way, you wanted examples of bad things parents do. Well, they restrict TV watching, by force. There's also grounding, timeouts, curfews, taking away allowances, restricting usage of a car, and deciding if the child is allowed to go on a trip or not.
Elliot: Further, activists who don't like government schools take the position that government shouldn't decide what our children learn ... parents should. No one takes the position that children should decide for themselves. So these issues, including bad epistemology, are very prevalent in our culture.
Caeli: Oh dear. Something should be done.
Elliot: I know.
Elliot: By the way, solipsism, induction and more are addressed very well in The Fabric of Reality by David Deutsch.
Caeli: What doesn't that book cover?
Elliot: Morality, education, and aardvarks.
Caeli: I've got to go in a moment, is there anything you'd like to add first? Besides that I should buy and read that book. Because I will, already :)
Elliot: The idea of children as gullible sponges, and the idea of children as extraordinary stubborn are both very common in parenting. This shows a lack of careful thinking. Watch out for it.
Caeli: What are some more examples of each?
Elliot: Until recently, the general idea was that children needed to be physically beaten to break their stubbornness. It's that hard a task to make them submit and start listening to your ideas.
Elliot: Meanwhile, parents are deathly concerned that their children may hang out with the wrong friends, because they could very easily pick up some bad ideas from them.
Caeli: That certainly does contradict. I better go now.
Elliot: It was nice talking, Caeli.
Caeli: Bye!

Elliot Temple on October 22, 2006


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