How do we know what we know?

My ponderings on epistemology below is largely a paraphrase of the transcript of the February 21st podcast from The Liturgists. I also inject some thoughts of my own, but you’ll have to listen to the podcast to figure out which is what!

Epistemology is a discipline of modern philosophy that studies how it is we know what we know. Or, what is it we’re doing when we say that we know something? It becomes a challenge to describe this in a way that is not self-referential — circular logic. You may say, “Well, I have the Bible. I know what I know because the Bible says so!” So my response would be, how do you know the Bible is true? “Because the Bible says so!” There is a prime example of circular logic.

Quantum physics has a decoherence problem. Any given particle can act like a wave under certain observations. Therefore we no longer use the term “particle” in preference of the more general term “wave function.” Once observed, the wave function collapses into particle behavior or wave behavior.

Relativity shows that there is no universally simultaneous event. The order of events can change depending on the frame of reference of the observer. A stationary observer sees much differently than the observer approaching the speed of light. All observations are valid only within their respective frame of reference. There is no single privileged perspective.

So what remains? Is there any reasonable approach to how we should describe reality? With the understanding that our senses present us with a summary view of reality, and our memories and subsequent recall are based on these senses, then we can collaboratively take these memories – “experience” – and put together an informed perspective. (So how do we know we’re not just a brain in a jar? The question put forth by rationalism is based on circular logic, given that rationalism itself stakes its claim on being self-evident.)

This collaboration is called empiricism, where the confidence in any given belief is proportional to the evidence supporting that belief. Any and all claims should be approached with skepticism, and evaluated for merit based on accompanying evidence. Just to be clear, empiricism is explicitly based on the idea that evidence is a valid means of finding knowledge. (Skepticism without the acceptance of evidence becomes nihilism.)

Let’s talk about the assumptions that become evident when we put forth this idea of empiricism. First, the assumption that making the fewest assumptions possible is the best approach to finding knowledge through evidence. Secondly, that each participant is a conscious observer, based on past experiences of reality: our senses are perceiving an actual reality. Given these, we can move forward with this approach as a test for reality, based on sensory information.

Now back to the Bible question. Our modern and post-modern philosophy is directly descended from the Greek traditions of western civilization. However, the Bible is a product of eastern civilization, written by many authors, spanning multiple periods in history, in several different languages. We must acknowledge the considerable gap in perspective from our post-modern point of view when compared to the initial author(s) and audience(s). Bring this concern forward into our current fractured, polarized society, and the question becomes: if we can’t agree on the basic meanings of words, then how do we have conversation? What bridge can we build between disparate groups and individuals?

Given our two problems of quantum physics (decoherence) and relativity (position of observer), we conclude that multiple perspectives are necessary to gain a broader view of reality. No single perspective is privileged. What perspective do we have, anyway? As a product of evolution, the human brain is not tasked with finding The Truth ™. Its main function is to assist with survival and procreation. Food. Shelter. Sex. Given the social nature of the human animal, social status and money become part of the pursuit of survival. It turns out that our perceptory senses are just a hack. It only matters that we perceive enough reality to achieve these finite goals. Therefore all of our thinking is deeply biased.

As a brief introduction to cognitive biases, consider these examples. Confirmation bias leads us to accept information more readily if it reinforces what we already believe. But if we receive too much information contradicting our beliefs too quickly, we shut down in a defense mechanism known as the backfire effect, where all new information is summarily rejected. As inherently social (tribal) beings, we believe what our community believes – the bandwagon effect. Authority bias leads us to believe anyone with elevated status … from within our group. The same bias leads us to disregard with equal intensity anyone of elevated status (authority) from a rival group. And regardless of evidence or merit, we tend to believe what we hear repeatedly: the availability cascade.

So what’s to prevent the collapse of our society, our shared social norms? Empiricism is a reasonable compromise to petulant nihilism (which is “my truth” vs “your truth”). The more evidence we combine and test from diverse perspectives, the better approximation of reality we build among ourselves. Recognize that informed expert opinion makes a difference. Just because I’m an avid reader of SciAm doesn’t mean I can make any sense of the latest data set from a CERN particle collider experiment, when compared to a scientist who has devoted decades of her life to the focused study of particle physics. Expertise matters! Lived experience and applied learning matters!

In conclusion, the difference between petulant nihilism and informed nihilism (“empiricism”) is an incredible intellectual humility. We learn to know that there are things we just don’t know, in addition to having greater confidence in knowing what it is we do know.