The Ethics of How We Know Things
I believe there is no God but if proof was discovered of God’s existence, then I would believe. That’s my epistemological standard. I think it is a reasonable one for most people to adopt. There is no God for all the many reasons I have listed in Reason and Myth, Reason and Religion, The Rational Individual, Land Without Dogs, Imagine No Faith, Perfect Religion and Sex and Religion. I became an unbeliever at 13 years old after reading Being and Nothingness J P Sartre. At no point as a teenager growing up was I entitled to conclude that this knowledge was reliable. As life drew on, I revisited this belief numerous times until, with maturity, I set in motion a more formal causal link from the belief "There Is No God" (after reading thousands of books) to the truth that there is likely no god, gods, fairies, banshees, angels or any supernatural order whatsoever but if even one solid peice of scientific evidence is discovered by authentic scientists, I'll look anew.
Universal human knowledge, such as the recognition of a "tree" as in, everyone agrees there are trees and knows how to identify them, cannot be equated with "There Is No God". Nearly eight billion people (or at least the vast majority of us, let's say 99.9%) will not often dispute a tree as a tree, or for that matter, the sun, moon or stars. A belief that "I am the happiest person in the world" cannot be taken at face value, even if I could list all the relevant facts to prove it. I want to make several claims about human beings and "what" and "how" we can know on the basis of what we currently know epistemologically (that is, given all the restrictions of human perception). This goes without stating that there are obvious controversies inside what today we call, "Theory of Knowledge". I think we can safely say, given our history of accumulating knowledge, we mortal human beings, are fallible. We cannot be guaranteed absolute truth and we ought to maintain what I call, "A reasoned skeptical curmudgeon stance" with regards to absolute knowledge claims. I have argued in Atheism, Scepticism and Philosophy that we can attain only tentative, but exceedingly useful, knowledge. I want to defend this epistemological optimism, (i.e., there is objective truth but NOT you, I or anyone else can know it).
This is what I mean by tentative knowledge: If the Theory of Evolution were proven false, Creationism, or something like it, would likely prevail. The reason the Theory of Evolution is almost certainly true is its casual link from theory to facts-on-the-ground (so to speak) from every branch of science. If there are apparent holes in the theory, they seem now only tiny perforations, if there are any at all, See, Breaking the Spell, D Dennett; Darwinism Evolving, D Depew and B Weber; Origins of Life, J M Smith & E Szathmáry; Sapiens, Y N Harari; The Theory of Evolution, C Mills; The Third Chimpanzee, J Diamond; A Universe from Nothing, L M Krauss; Why Evolution is True, J A Coyne; Wonderful Life, S J Gould; The Blind Watchmaker, R Dawkins; and The Origin of the Species, C Darwin. If you are on the other side of this debate, you are probably not there from any scientific reasoning or empirical data.
Several well-grounded facts are easy to ascertain in “Understanding Human Beings 101”. We have a "Human Nature". It is constantly changing as is all of life, but the changes are so slow that for our purposes as homo-sapiens, we can “pretend” and treat it as a static event. This human nature includes epistemological uncertainty. Knowledge must be verified externally, (i.e., there is a "Moon" and "I am the happiest person in the world" are not in any manner equal knowledge claims. Neither are, “there are very smart dogs in the world” with “I was abducted by aliens”. Again two separate types of claims). We are crippled by subjectivism unless we externalize using induction, deduction, logic, science, mathematics, self-criticism, intuition pumps, and in an expression, "All the Tools of Reason". Learn to check the facts and change your mind; it is exceedingly good for you. [See, A 1000 Brains, The Brain That Changes Itself, N Doidge; Change Your Brain, Change Your Life, D G Amen; The Marshmallow Test, W Mischel; Predictably Irrational, D Arielly; Smarter, D Hurley; all of Oliver Sacks books, especially, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat; Big Brain, G Lynch; Mind in the Making; E Galinsky; The Future of Mind; M Kaka; Brain Maker, D Perimutter and many others].
Human Nature* includes lower primitive aspects of the brain that are driven automatically and surface in humans mostly as habits. Importantly, we really are “Creatures of Habit” *. In this regard human beings work like this: We gain knowledge on how to use a cell-phone, and after a short learning curve, the behavior becomes automatic, taken over by the subconscious, likely in the lower reaches of the brain. We make choices which become habit over time. We find our way home from work everyday using repetitive routes which we never think about unless we get detoured. These habits become building blocks of our substantial and unique personalities. Habits are not hard-wired though, and with proper training and self-effort, can be (potentially) changed. Good habits like brushing your teeth, eating well and exercising can be learned as quick as bad habits such as smoking, over-eating and having too much couch time. There are just so many hours in the day for just so many bad habits. Good ones displace the bad. If you are running, swimming or playing sports (or if you’ve developed a work ethic and have gainful employment), you are (at least at the time) not smoking, eating or sitting around too many hours in the day. Over a lifetime, those few hours spent on the positive side, can prevent a premature death. The older parts of the brain, the ones which form habitual behaviors driven by desire rather than reason and often resists change, are a serious problem for modern humans. For instance we eat poorly often when we know damn-well that if it’s in a box, bag, jar, tin or restaurant, it’s most likely to be avoided being that it will have too much sugar, fat or salt, and often all three. We recognize we need conceptual information from books and not to obtain all of our information from newspapers, television or magazines. We must develop independent judgment. We also discern that we must have a rigorous exercise regime. Still, we demur. Habit is the comfort gene, and left to our natural inclination in a time of abundance, easy information and no pressing need to run, we will become fat, stupid and/or ugly; probably all three.
Incentive and Agency
Our primal driving force is the "self" and this leads to two interdependent concepts in regards to human nature. With the right incentives, human beings live in harmony with much less violence in their societies. To quote Keegan's History of Warfare: "All that we need to accept is that, over the course of 4000 years of experiment and repetition, war-making has become a habit." By incentives, we mean that which appeals to our basic human nature (i.e., carrot and stick stuff like free markets, law and order and stable, small, democratic governments). Worldwide democracy might clash with some cultures like Islamic or Marxist ones, but a culture of liberty for the individual and universal human-rights protection for all people is the incentive for a reasoned life and a strong self-regulating mind. Epistemological uncertainty, (or if you would rather, "basic philosophic doubt"), allows the self, as it grows, to immerse itself in a life of fact-checking as it makes its choices ( i.e, allows feedback to be absorbed and promotes self-correction). How we know things as mammalian creatures is originally through empirical data (the outside world supplying the brain with details). Thirty to forty thousand years ago human beings became self-aware. (At this point in our history, natural selection was halted for us as a species, since the choices we made were no longer [always] subconscious.)
We learned to conceptualize and accumulate information through myths. Much later, individuals began to keep records and even to think for themselves (as against the tribal mentality). This kind of agency led to a strengthening of independent thinking throughout the world. The development of the rational "I" who chose beliefs based on reason (or facts) rather than myth, led individuals into changing other people’s view (and so forth). This was at first a Western phenomena but through the millenniums has gone global. To appreciate the anthropological, cultural and biological situation of human beings and to understand basic human nature (i.e., how we have landed in the spot we stand today in the world), see, Culture and Carnage,V Hanson; The Red Queen, M Ridley; The Cultural Trilogy, T Sowell; Guns, Germs and Steel, J Diamond; A History of Warfare, J Keegan; Knowledge and Decisions,T Sowell; Why the West Rules, I Morris; Why the West is Best, I Warraq; Black Mass, J Gray; and Plagues and People, W H McNeill.
Epistemology, habit, incentive and agency are interconnected. Often the largest barrier to their mutual supportive task in producing a rational modern thinking human being is ideology, and especially, as I have never grown tired of expressing, platonic ideas, which are the foundation of so many collective irrational mass movements, religions and philosophies, by which I mean especially, Christianity, Marxism, Existentialism, Phenomenology, Positivism, New Age Cults and other such belief systems which I have written about in my many articles over the years. The collective mind is the savage primal brain. It is not open to facts. It is derisive of democracy, loathing of the sensual world, fearful of science, and often, hateful of life itself. Why a philosophy such as Plato’s Christ’s or Marx’s is so antithetical to basic human nature, (that is, to logical incentives, good habits and sovereign agency which are essential to our harmony and happiness), is that they are unsupported beliefs in otherworldliness and autocratic utopian societies, see, The Open Society and Its Enemies, K Popper;The Counter-Revolution of Science, F Hayek; Reason and Analysis, B Blanshard; The Life of Reason, G Santayana; Human Action, L von Mises; and The Myth of Mental Illness, T Szasz.
Platonists have an open disdain for human beings as they have come to be, that is, mammalian creatures directly evolved from homo-erectus, and they indirectly from Common Chimpanzee who evolved from an earlier primate, and ad infinitum to the first animate life on earth. Homo-erectus evolved one to two millions years ago. Understanding our “animal-ness” helps us to see how we know things and what we can know (i.e., helps see our restrictions given our subjective animal consciousness). It shows us why the self naturally comes first (as it does in all mammals), and that, this most important trait can be modified in humans but should never be altogether thwarted (i.e., why Plato is wrong in essence). It reveals why habits can routinely take over our thinking processes or why incentives are as important to adjusting our bad behaviors to good ones as they are for our trained pets. Proper incentives for all human beings can get the world to a peaceful less violent planet, one perhaps even without want, environment destruction or war. With self-aware agency, a rational human being can emerge from the seeming chaos and randomness of our experience into an existence with some self-imposed rational arrangement. Given the right epistemology, we can come into a life of reason and discover purpose in our own lives, even find fellow spirits, love and adventure among the ruins. We can be successful in the stuff that is so great about this chance life has given us. Every now and then, but not always, it can even bring about human happiness, see, The Conquest of Happiness, B Russell; The Power of Habit,C Duhigg; Stumbling on Happiness, D Gilbert; Authentic Happiness,M Seligman; Finding Flow, M Csikszentmihalyi; and The Rational Optimist,M Ridley. In regard to your habitual pleasures, you must ask yourself: Does this behavior increase my overall chance of happiness? My long term goal, has for instance, been to understand the world, and this has forced me into understanding broad positions: philosophic, metaphysic and practical. Studying psychology and literature came necessarily, but it never led me to be entirely happy about it — it was always hard work, and many of the theories and books I’ve read, I was unmotivated to learn, but did anyway. My purpose was task-centered, driven by my need to understand certain general concepts.
Human happiness is a fine goal, better say, than, self-sacrifice, but when individual happiness butts heads with significance, significance must always win. Philosophy and religion often spring covert attacks on the body (as the alleged mode of "mis-perception" of reality, such as Berkeley or Descartes did) and the mind (as the human edifice for our "deluded" personality, self, ego, or whatever you call it, such as Nietzsche and Marx did). The perceptual apparatus of the body seems easily fooled, and much of this "broad philosophical/religious accusation", it appears to me, could only be true if we were somewhere back in time in a tribe of isolated indigenous people. For our times, those who want to be educated, (self-educated or otherwise), this is no trouble at all to achieve, (only much work, a little self-criticism, and a balanced viewpoint without a fixed ideology). A life of reason, if applied judiciously, is attainable for most people, but within them, there must be a personal striving for it. (It goes without saying, that force, bullying or state-interference cannot bring this result about, and especially not war, i.e., the democratic countries cannot use war to bring it about).
Reason is an arbitrator between column A and column B, in a much greater way than many thinkers have allowed. It is the function of the mind which grasps necessary connections, like bird and feather, sun and heat, lion and carnivore, 2+2=4. It is like a definition where percept or concept “A” leads to an understanding of percept or concept “B.” Reason is that perceptual/conceptual ability of the mind, the spirit of which isn’t any pedestrian scientific-claim, but rather the general thrust of its discursiveness, its grand open-minded inquiry, and virtuous and magnanimous sense of searching for answers without hidden agendas. It is essentially the logical ability to work out the contradictions between percept and concept inside the mind, so that the really real and the idea of it, are as near as possible to one another. It is the function of the mind that is the logical analysis of the things from imagination and myth so that humankind’s science isn’t too severely distorted by either of them. It is the mode of awareness in human beings as applied to sense perception aiming at Immanuel Kant’s, the thing-in-itself.
Reason is like a door, which can open a world beyond the darkness, though for each, the door has to be found in a different part of the structure. What needs to be clarified in our times, isn’t that all people reason, for this isn’t the case any more than everyone has "free will", but that each person holds within them the ability to find the door and the key to unlock it by applying reason. It should be thought of as humankind’s natural drive, given that they have the ability to develop language, to increase their knowledge of the world around them, to understand nature and the nature of things. However, reason, like IQ, is nothing static, nor is it some latent faculty which if properly isolated and developed by science, can produce a reasoning person, nor can it be undermined by philosophy, psychology and religion (as over the past centuries) and be expected to remain unscathed in our minds. It is a mode of awareness which defines humankind in duration and shows that a (practical) moral theory is more than possible. Neither the skeptic nor the religious moralist needs to be converted to it. Reason cuts both ways: like liberty, it wants to give to science what is scientifically valid, and it wants to give to spiritual man, their own unique domain away from politics and the harsh unkind light of behavioral science and other microscopic views of human action. It is a function humans have in potential. This potential requires certain conditions, (for instance, basic human rights). The human mind is tied to reason by the act of focusing, or some sort of directing of the mind (i.e., agency), to the object of desire. The moral consequence of this focusing-act in cognition can often be active, and women and men’s immediate, intermediate, or long-term goals, are directly affected by this cognitive ability. If ideology, religion, hedonism or other vulgar distractions, don’t circumvent reason, the modern woman or man can achieve a life of reason—it’s doable, given the liberty to pursue it, and I dare say, with time, we can go from being a person of reason to one with even greater wisdom.
Let’s say I looked at a Japanese text illusion. It is a complicated graphic design, but it looks to the eye like it’s constantly oscillating. I can say: “Perception failed me. Reason be damned!” or I can say: “Some very skilled and smart people created, ‘A trick of the mind,’ and reason, logic, and science assisted them.” The thing about illusions, and other perceptual quandaries, is that reason surmounts them, if you follow it through. Sometimes it takes generations to figure out a mystery, but slowly, inevitably, it explains it. This is the thing about Freud, he brought all of his reasoning, rationalism and logical skill to prove that we are (ultimately) irrational. In the behavioral sciences, the vast bleak wasteland is so obvious that it is a wonder it ever got off the ground intellectually. In university (1978 . . .) . . . in psychology, to me, Jean Paiget was a shining star. Embracing determinism seemed psychologically suicidal, and I was very disinclined to learn it with anything like heartfelt vigor. Skinner was hard to swallow, but Freud was an intellectual giant and it wasn’t until I came across, Szaszs’ The Manufacture of Madness, Ideology and Insanity, and his other works, J Masson’s, A Dark Science, and M Foucault’s, The Order of Things, that I totally rejected the whole psychoanalytic project. It is interesting that Marx, Skinner, and Freud, (these three legends were all fiercely undemocratic), preached political utopia (or dystopia) and aimed for Platonic (or closed) societies. All of them rejected (in an overall way) Aristotle and all of them held that reason and logic ultimately had little use in the affairs of human beings.
Positive Psychology is a brilliant concept based on good scientific principals. The idea that today in the West, we are kids in a candy store is somewhat true. One of the great ironies of our age is that it is obvious that hedonism brings overt unhappiness, and in pretty short order as well; yet, still many naive people choose it over hard work, dedication, tenacity, ambition, long-term desires, and other choices in this category of traits which bring-about long-term benefits. As I’ve said to many of my male friends, if some beautiful young woman was to rip off all of her clothes and throw herself into your arms, would you be blamed if you succumbed? This is analogous to what it is like living in this age — the enticements are everywhere, (I mean food, sex, electronic games, junk, drugs, etc.) — on billboards, at parties, school, campus, work, television, ipods, ipads, radio and wherever you are. Someone like my teenage son might say: “Why should I do extra homework or extra reading, when I have so many toys that I haven’t even had a chance to play with them all yet.” My view is: “Who cares about toys! Get to work!” But from his point of view, I’m probably being irrational, or at least a difficult parent and certainly not enjoying his "more modern insight about life" enough. All this stuff, (food, sex, electronic games, junk, drugs, etcetera), baffles us at first. Such things as eating, being entertained, having casual sex, believing exactly what you like no matter how irrational and other hedonistic pursuits, really do feel pretty good. So where do you get the kilograms of self-discipline needed (in reserve) to take you through the morass of the self-indulgent society of the West, (what I call the Walt Disney Culture)? People without superstition and religion need a philosophy to take them through life. So philosophy has a practical utility; however, most philosophers are screwed and tattooed. (Secretly, many of them hate reason because it restricts human beings from an unabashed life of mysticism, egoism, authority, emotionalism, power, irrational urges and whatever else they want to personally believe in, especially perfect justice). Reason encourages frankness, self-criticism, directness and honesty: it demands open inquiry. It upholds freedom: it supports the supremacy of the human will. It promotes toleration and butts directly up against religion, superstition and ignorance. It inherently advances moderation, democracy, and human rights, and for many philosophers of the closed society (Plato, Augustine, Machiavelli, Spengler, Hegel, Marx, Nietzche, Sartre, Heidegger, Marcuse, Chomsky and many others; i.e., the declinists) this is undesirable and even intolerable; however, there are some philosophers who endorse it, (although, perhaps not to the same extent as I do): Spinoza, Locke, Russell, but especially, Popper, Szasz, Santayana, Blanshard, von Mises and Hayek.
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"Popper's epistemology has, in every pragmatic sense, become the prevailing theory of the nature and growth of scientific knowledge. When it comes to the rules for experiments in any field to be accepted as 'scientific evidence' by theoreticians in that field, or by respectable journals for publication, or by physicians for choosing between rival medical treatments, the modern watchwords are just as Popper would have them: experimental testing, exposure to criticism, theoretical explanation and the acknowledgement of falsifibility in experimental procedures." D Deutsch, The Fabric of Reality.
* Human Nature (Some instances thereof, quoted from The Language Instinct, Stephen Pinker) "Value placed on articulateness. Gossip. Lying. Misleading. Verbal humor. Humorous insults. Poetic and rhetorical speech forms. Narrative and storytelling. Metaphor. Poetry with repetition of linguistic elements and three-second lines separated by pauses. Words for days, months, seasons, years, past, present, future, body parts, inner states (emotions, sensations, thoughts), behavioral propensities, flora, fauna, weather, tools, space, motion, speed, location, spatial dimensions, physical properties, giving, lending, affecting things and people, numbers (at the very least “one,” “two,” and “more than two”), proper names, possession. Distinctions between mother and father. Kinship categories, defined in terms of mother, father, son, daughter, and age sequence. Binary distinctions, including male and female, black and white, natural and cultural, good and bad. Measures. Logical relations including “not,” “and,” “same,” “equivalent,” “opposite,” general versus particular, part versus whole. Conjectural reasoning (inferring the presence of absent and invisible entities from their perceptible traces).
Nonlinguistic vocal communication such as cries and squeals. Interpreting intention from behavior. Recognized facial expressions of happiness, sadness, anger, fear, surprise, disgust, and contempt. Use of smiles as a friendly greeting. Crying. Coy flirtation with the eyes. Masking, modifying, and mimicking facial expressions. Displays of affection Sense of self versus other, responsibility, voluntary versus involuntary behavior, intention, private inner life, normal versus abnormal mental states. Empathy. Sexual attraction. Powerful sexual jealousy. Childhood fears, especially of loud noises, and, at the end of the first year, strangers. Fear of snakes. “Oedipal” feelings (possessiveness of mother, coolness toward her consort). Face recognition. Adornment of bodies and arrangement of hair. Sexual attractiveness, based in part on signs of health and, in women, youth. Hygiene. Dance. Music. Play, including play fighting.
Manufacture of, and dependence upon, many kinds of tools, many of them permanent, made according to culturally transmitted motifs, including cutters, pounders, containers, string, levers, spears. Use of fire to cook food and for other purposes. Drugs, both medicinal and recreational. Shelter. Decoration of artifacts.
A standard pattern and time for weaning. Living in groups, which claim a territory and have a sense of being a distinct people. Families built around a mother and children, usually the biological mother, and one or more men. Institutionalized marriage, in the sense of publicly recognized right of sexual access to a woman eligible for childbearing. Socialization of children (including toilet training) by senior kin. Children copying their elders. Distinguishing of close kin from distant kin, and favoring of close kin. Avoidance of incest between mothers and sons Great interest in the topic of sex.Status and prestige, both assigned (by kinship, age, sex) and achieved. Some degree of economic inequality. Division of labor by sex and age. More child care by women. More aggression and violence by men. Acknowledgment of differences between male and female natures. Domination by men in the public political sphere. Exchange of labor, goods, and services. Reciprocity, including retaliation. Gifts. Social reasoning. Coalitions. Government, in the sense of binding collective decisions about public affairs. Leaders, almost always nondictatorial, perhaps ephemeral. Laws, rights, and obligations, including laws against violence, rape, and murder. Punishment. Conflict, which is deplored. Rape. Seeking of redress for wrongs. Mediation. In-group/out-group conflicts. Property. Inheritance of property. Sense of right and wrong. Envy.
Etiquette. Hospitality. Feasting. Diurnality. Standards of sexual modesty. Sex generally in private. Fondness for sweets. Food taboos. Discreetness in elimination of body wastes. Supernatural beliefs. Magic to sustain and increase life, and to attract the opposite sex. Theories of fortune and misfortune. Explanations of disease and death. Medicine. Rituals, including rites of passage. Mourning the dead. Dreaming, interpreting dreams.