Tag Archives: philosophy

Knowledge is power

Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford

“The list of things that I believe is, if not infinite, virtually endless. And I am finite.  Though I can readily imagine what I would have to do to obtain evidence that would support anyone of my beliefs, I cannot imagine being able to do this for all of my beliefs.  I believe too much, there is too much relevant evidence (much of it available only after extensive, specialized training); intellect is too small and life is too short.”

These words are a direct quote from the opening paragraph of an article by John Hardwig published in the Journal of Philosophy in 1985. He goes on to argue that we can have good reasons for believing something if we have good reasons for believing that others have good reasons to believe it.  So, it is reasonable for a layperson to believe something that an expert also believes and that it is even rational to refuse to think for ourselves in these circumstances.  Because life is too short and there are too many other things to think about.

This implies a high level of trust in the expert as well as a concept of knowledge that is known by the community.  Someone somewhere has the evidence to support the knowledge.  For instance, as a professor, I am trusted by my students to provide them with knowledge for which I have the supporting evidence or I believe someone else has the evidence.  This trust is reinforced to a very small extent by replicating the evidence in practical classes.

More than 30 years ago, John Hardwig concluded his article by worrying about the extent to which wisdom is based on trust and the threat to “individual autonomy and responsibility, equality and democracy” posed by our dependence on others for knowledge.  Today, the internet has given us access to, if not infinite, virtually endless information.  Unfortunately, much of the information available is inaccurate, incomplete and biased, sometimes due to self-interest.  Our problem is sifting the facts from the fabrications; and identifying who are experts and can be trusted as sources of knowledge.  This appears to be leading to a crisis of trust in both experts and what constitutes the body of knowledge known by the community, which is threatening our democracies and undermining equality.

Source:

Hardwig J, Epistemic dependence, J. Philosophy, 82(7):335-349, 1985.

Consensus is just a coffee break

milk in coffee‘Consensus is just a coffee break’ to quote Caputo. He argued that if consensus was the ultimate aim then eventually we would all stop talking. The goal of conversation would be silence and as he wrote that would be a strange outcome for a species defined by its ability to speak. It is differences that drive everything: innovation, progress and the processes of life.

In thermodynamics, William Thomson (Lord Kelvin) observed that heat flows into the random motion of molecules and is never recovered, so that eventually a universe of uniform temperature will be created. When heat flows between matter at different temperatures we can extract work, for instance, using a heat engine. No work could be extracted from a universe of uniform temperature and so nothing would happen. Life would cease and there would be cosmic death [see my posts entitled ‘Will it all be over soon‘ on November 2nd, 2016 and ‘Cosmic Heat Death‘ on February 18th, 2015].

In the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, the crew of the Heart of Gold contemplated whether relationships between people were susceptible to the same laws that governed the relationships between atoms and molecules. The answer would appear to be affirmative in terms of dissonance being necessary for action.

So, we should celebrate and respect the differences in our communities. They are essential for a functioning, vibrant and successful society – without them life would not just consist of silent conversations but would cease completely.

Sources:

Caputo JD, Truth: Philosophy in Transit, London: Penguin 2013

Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, London: Picador, 2002.