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How To Ask Questions 5

Caeli: Hi!
Elliot: Hi, Caeli.
Caeli: You said that parents use false epistemology.
Elliot: I did.
Caeli: How so?
Elliot: There are a few main forms of false epistemology. One is induction. One is the idea that knowledge is justified, true belief. There's relativism, positivism, solipsism, instrumentalism. There's the sponge theory of brains. There's foundationalism.
Caeli: And parents use those?
Elliot: Everyone uses them, except for a few people who know better.
Caeli: Is it fair to complain specifically about parents, then?
Elliot: Parents and teachers. Epistemology plays a large role in theories of education and learning, so parents and teachers are people that especially ought to care about it.
Caeli: What is epistemology?
Elliot: It is the field of knowledge about knowledge. It covers what knowledge is, and how we can get it, and its qualities.
Caeli: Oh. That does sound important if you want to help a young child learn.
Elliot: Exactly.
Caeli: Tell me about epistemology.
Elliot: The primary form of false epistemology is the justified, true belief view of knowledge. All the others I mentioned are related to it in some way. But let's start with good epistemology. Then we can compare.
Elliot: Before we begin, let me mention a few outside sources. One of the best philosophers was Karl Popper. He wrote a lot about epistemology and it's worth taking a look at his books. There's also a few chapters about epistemology in The Fabric of Reality by David Deutsch which are excellent. Finally, a very good thinker and writer about education was William Godwin. Whereas Popper's focus was on epistemology, Godwin focussed more on the morality of education and parenting. Godwin's books are out of copyright now and you can download one for free at this link.
Caeli: So, what's the right epistemology?
Elliot: Knowledge is created through a process of conjecture and refutation. What this means is you make guesses and then you reject the guesses that are bad. When you find flaws in guesses, you don't have to throw them out entirely. Strictly speaking, that guess is no good. But you can create new guesses that are only slightly different and no longer have the flaw.
Elliot: By removing flaws and errors, our set of guesses constantly improves. So, we end up with new knowledge. This process is called evolution.
Caeli: I thought evolution was about animals.
Elliot: How to be an effective animal that survives and has offspring is a type of knowledge, and it is the best known example of evolution. Another well known example is memes. But the reach of evolution can't be arbitrarily restricted. The logic applies to any kind of knowledge.
Caeli: Do we need to start with true ideas? If we make small changes to false ideas, they'll still be false.
Elliot: It's not important where we start. Well, it sort of is. We should start in the best places we know how to. But it doesn't change the principle of the matter. For all we know, the ideas we are discussing now are largely false. That's OK. We can improve them. Doing so makes life better and lets us solve problems.
Caeli: So you're saying the goal is not to worry about having perfect ideas, but just to improve the ones we have?
Elliot: That's right.
Caeli: And the way to improve them are to find flaws and eliminate the flaws by making new ideas that are changed to not have the flaws anymore?
Elliot: Yeah.
Caeli: How am I supposed to know what the flaws are?
Elliot: People have problems in their life. One person might wish his door would stop getting stuck in the Winter. Another wants his child to be a doctor, but doesn't know how to make that happen. Another wants to marry a girl he met, but isn't sure how to act around her.
Caeli: You make it sound like problems are a lack of knowledge.
Elliot: Well noticed. They are. The only obstacles to doing things are knowing how and wanting to.
Caeli: So, I can't figure out how to get my door to stop sticking. How does that help me find flaws?
Elliot: The door embodies ideas about how to build a door. What shape to make it, and what materials to use, and what features to include to facilitate maintenance or replacement or to resist damage and malfunction. And it embodies ideas about what an aesthetic door would be, and what sort of door would go well with the other things in people's houses, and what sort of doors should be created given the resources available on Earth (including raw materials, technology, and labor).
Caeli: So, when it sticks, that is a criticism of some of the knowledge in the design?
Elliot: Yes, you've got it.
Caeli: How do we tell which knowledge?
Elliot: There's no formula for it. What we need to do is create an explanation of what's going on. It will explain why the door sticks. If we expand it, we can also explain what causes doors to stick or not, in general, and then work out what sorts of doors would not stick, and then use that to propose new ideas about what types of doors to build.
Caeli: Want to go through this example?
Elliot: OK. The door sticks because moisture in the air in Winter is absorbed into the wood, and this makes the door larger. Solutions would include making the door out of water-resistant materials, or coating it with something, or making slightly smaller doors (or slightly larger doorways), or using a lubricant to make it easier to push open even when there is friction with the doorway.
Caeli: You see so much detail in the ordinary.
Elliot: Doors aren't ordinary. They didn't exist for most of the history of the Earth. We create them through complicated processes that people take for granted, but shouldn't. Our civilization is a great wonder. There's a classic example economists give, which is that no one knows how to make a pencil. What they mean is that all the different labor involved is divided among so many people that no one knows how to do all the parts. A pencil includes wood, carbon, paint, rubber, and metal, and each of those things must be harvested, prepared, and put together, and then the pencils must be distributed to stores, and the stores and complex too, as are the ways of shipping things to stores. Shipping raw materials to factories involves trucks or trains. Those involve engines, and thousands of parts, and fuel, and many workers.
Caeli: Wow.
Elliot: Indeed.
Caeli: So, how do we know our criticism is correct? Couldn't we be mistaken when we think we find a flaw.
Elliot: We can be mistaken, but it's no big deal. A way I like to think about ideas is that they grow more complex over time. Instead of just inventing new ideas that don't fall victim to flaws we find, we can include in a new idea an explanation of the issue the flaw was about, and our current best ideas about how to deal with it.
Elliot: Now, suppose we make a mistake when we alter one of our ideas. That's OK. Now our knowledge includes the old idea, and the supposed problem with it, and the new idea, and supposed reason it is better. When we learn yet another new thing, we may see the old idea is better, but we won't ever go back to the past. We'll go to a new view of having an idea, plus a criticism of it, plus a criticism of that criticism. We'll be learning more even if we make mistakes sometimes.
Caeli: What if we made mistakes most of the time? Maybe we'd end up going backwards, or just never get anywhere. Why should we be right enough of the time to make progress? Aren't there more ways to be wrong than right?
Elliot: There are more ways to be wrong, but the ways to be right have more reach, so right away things don't look so gloomy. Every good idea we find counts for a lot, and will help us in many ways. But bad ideas we find will rarely matter to any other subjects.
Caeli: Don't we find a lot of bad ideas because they do have reach to other subjects, but they imply false things about the other subjects?
Elliot: That's a good point. I think the reason that happens is because we are looking for ideas with reach. We want to find general principles. But this policy has the effect of ruling out huge numbers of bad ideas, and few, if any, good ideas.
Elliot: Back to your question about how can we be sure to make progress. I should mention we can't be certain we are getting things right. Although having explored more bad ideas does count as progress. When we do learn better, we'll be less likely to mistake them for good ideas, because we'll have such thorough knowledge of them.
Elliot: But the primary answer is that criticism isn't arbitrary. We don't make it up. We don't just choose what to believe and hope we're right. As you saw in the door example, the problem was a fact of reality. The door was getting stuck. And the proposed solutions will either work, or they won't.
Caeli: I see how science will make progress, because we can verify our results. But what about moral and philosophical issues? For example, should we make the door stop sticking, or would it be better the way it is?
Elliot: There are many modes of criticism available to us for more airy topics. For example, almost all our untestable ideas claim to be compatible with present-day logic. If we discover they aren't, we can reject them. Next, good ideas are part of our explanations of the world. They don't just say "unstuck doors are good" and leave it at that. We'd want to know why that was so, and find the claim unpersuasive if there aren't answers to our followup questions. But if there are answers, then the idea is saying a lot of different things, and we can look for internal consistency, and consistency with our other ideas.
Caeli: Can you give an example of how we can relate our moral ideas to the real world to get some sense of whether they are any good?
Elliot: We can compare how pleasant life is it different societies (including past ones) which have different values. We can notice that our society is peaceful, as we've commented on previously, and this is an amazingly good thing, and extremely rare in history. Whatever moral values are behind that must have some truth to them.
Caeli: They must?
Elliot: I think they do.
Caeli: Can you say more about the interplay between moral ideas and real life?
Elliot: Which moral ideas we believe affects our life. How nice it is, how successful it is. Complex moral ideas usually (always?) have parts about how to live, and other parts about what nice things will result from living this way. This can in fact work, or not. Further, moral ideas have to offer explanations involving real-world events and facts. Our moral ideas need to have something to say when someone commits a murder, or a war starts, or we get in a fight.
Elliot: And other people can criticize our moral ideas. A lot of people think it's right and good that children be blindly obedient. What do you think of that?
Caeli: That's awful. As you've said, we live in a society that rightly values freedom and voluntary interactions. And we value people thinking for themselves. And there's no reason that shouldn't apply to children.
Elliot: Indeed. And if you go around telling people that, some will be convinced.
Caeli: What about someone who doesn't like our society. He wouldn't be convinced.
Elliot: You'd have two options. You could either find some shared beliefs and make reference to those in your argument. Or you could try to teach him the values of a free society. Communicating new ideas is hard, as we've discussed, but if he managed to create that knowledge he could certainly like it and then agree with you about kids.
Caeli: Couldn't I be wrong? I grew up in a society that said to value these things.
Elliot: Well, that same society said they don't apply to kids very much. You haven't taken your society's values on faith or authority, you've only adopted the ones that seem good to you.
Caeli: And ones I haven't thought about much.
Elliot: Yeah, but that's no big deal. If they come up and affect your life much, then you'll be reminded to think about them then. Just when they're important.
Caeli: Haha, that's cool. So, I'm still a bit fuzzy about how to link morality to the real world.
Elliot: It's tricky, because we don't know as much about the nature of morality as we might like. We have a lot of evolved moral ideas in real life which we can use. And they don't need to be justified, and it's not important where they came from. They'll get better over time as people think about them. But that doesn't really answer the question. If the real world wasn't linked to morality, maybe they wouldn't get better over time with thought.
Elliot: One thing to do is compare different groups of people that value the same thing, but try to achieve it in different ways. The group that better achieves its goals is more moral in some way.
Caeli: Couldn't they be lucky? Like they have more natural resources.
Elliot: Yes, that's possible. But you can form explanations of why they succeeded. If it's because of their policy of intense political debate and democracy, then that wasn't luck.
Elliot: Another thing to consider is that any morality which doesn't relate to the real world in any way is useless. So, if it doesn't relate, you can criticise it on those grounds. Any true morality must have a way it ties into life.
Caeli: What about people who debate nonsense and never get anywhere? Will their ideas evolve?
Elliot: If they have some rules to their debate, the ideas will evolve in accordance with those rules. But their ideas won't evolve usefully. What you should look at is: are these ideas solving problems people have in their lives, and accomplishing things, or not? If they aren't, you should be very concerned that it's arbitrary and pointless. But if the ideas are proving their value, then clearly they matter.
Caeli: That's cool. So what's next?
Elliot: Next is a brief summary of true epistemology, and then a comparison to various false ideas of epistemology.
Caeli: I think I'll go now. That summary would be a better way to start a discussion than end one.
Elliot: You're right. OK, bye.

Elliot Temple on October 22, 2006


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