Saturday, November 13, 2004

How knowledge creeps in

MelbournePhilosopher

You might not realise it, but everything you know is the result of philosophy. Apart from the meagre proportion of your knowledge which is the direct result of abstraction and generalisation from firsthand experience, basically your mind is full of recieved knowledge. Language, conversational structure, moral beliefs, beliefs in religion, atheism, political structure, chemistry, physics, maths - all of these have been formed mostly by people who addressed these issues from a philosophical point of view.

Our Western society still has such strong characteristics of Aristotelian logic that you can immediately accept them when they are identified to you. Logic - the idea for example that something can't be both true and false at the same time - is an Aristotelian idea. The idea that a bottle is defined as such because of its properties is an Aristotelian idea. The idea that ideas can be rigorously examined using logic is an Aristotelian idea. Whole centuries of Christian doctrine used Aristotelian beliefs about metaphysics (i.e. that the infinite was an impossibility, and that vacuum was similarly nonexistent) to back up their belief in a creator God.

Language itself has been formed by these ideas. While truly words are developed in an evolutionary way rather than being some kind of formal system, nonetheless our word pattens and entire way of thinking is reflected in it. Many apparent philosophical problems are merely the result of language rather than of true contradiction.

Physics in its entirely used to be a subdomain of "natural philosophy" - a movement under which such powerhouses as Descartes, Leibniz and many, many others developed idea which we would now properly call the domain of mathematics. Yet these people also saw philosophical meaning in their work - that is to say they did not separate the technical process of counting with the proper way to understand the world around us. Indeed, arguments about whether the world consists of countable components, or is continuous in nature rage to this day. This argument can be tracked from Aristotle's ideas about the void, through astronomy and the understanding of the infinite, into arguments about the nature of mathematical truth, along the mathematical ideas of Einstein and his contemporaries and right into our living room.

But people don't need or want to realise this on the whole. Instead, we are content with the approximate correctness of the ideas we hold. Perfect knowledge is a kind of illusion, and we understand this instinctively. We are content that our minds understand the world in Euclidean terms is acceptable - the relativistic nature of the universe is invisible at human scales and doesn't really matter when we are driving to the shops. Knowledge in most people exists as accepted rather than reasoned knowledge.

Things like cultural shift, generational gaps, frameworks, ontologies, contexts etc are essentially the result in changes to education (not just academic). Nobody in Australia my age or younger has experienced their country under the threat of military invasion. War heroes of the 1940s are respected in a kind of vague and uncomprehending way, the reality of their decisions and lives a mystery, only one generation later.

There is a duality to knowledge - on one hand most knowledge is the basis of thousands of years of human reasoning, and on another it is accepted entirely without rationale on the individual basis.

-MP

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