Knowledge is Personal

This is the second part (of three) of the talk ‘What I Know and Why I Know It’ which tries to provide a physical basis for knowledge. This part largely concerns philosophy.

10.      Pragmatism

The philosophical movement called ‘Pragmatism’ arose in the latter half of the 19th Century in the United States, partly inspired by the progress in the sciences in the fields of psychology and evolutionary biology (i.e Darwin, 1859!). One of the founders, William James, was instrumental in establishing psychology as a new discipline. The other two main founders of the movement were C.S. Pierce and John Dewey.

I want to emphasize the similarity between this philosophy and Karl Friston’s ‘variational free energy’ theory of the brain (see previous posting for a summary):

  • The pragmatic view of knowledge. The purpose of knowledge is to predict.
  • The relationship between thought and action. The active relationship between agent and environment.

Those similarities are:

  • In Friston’s ‘variational free energy’ theory of the brain, what could be called knowledge is the associations/weighting embedded within the brain which permit predictions. The purpose of knowledge is to predict.
  • For pragmatists (and specifically ‘instrumentalists’; Dewey considered himself to be an ‘instrumentalist’), knowledge is viewed as a set of tools in the solution of problems encountered in the environment.
  • For pragmatists, meaning is an awareness of consequences before they occur (prediction!) and thinking is viewed as deferred action.
  • Friston’s ‘minimization of surprise through action and perception’ in which actions are performed to improve prediction which in turn improve actions.
  • Pragmatists view thinking is as deferred action. It is seen in terms of the consequences of having a thought rather than the origins of that thought. (As William James put it: ‘fruits not roots’.)

11.     Impersonal Knowledge

In constrast with pragmatism, the mainstream of philosophy has been interested in the roots of knowledge.

There is a long tradition of rationalism within philosophy that elevates the purity of mathematics and logic over the imperfect senses that are not to be trusted, in our attempts to find (or justify) the truth – an absolute, objective truth, free of subjective emotional bias.

Around the same time as pragmatism, another philosophical movement developed in response to the success of science. Positivism deemed that the sole source of knowledge is evidence, that other claims to knowledge such as introspection and intuition should be rejected in order to avoid subjectivity.

Then, in the 1920s-1930s, the Logical Positivists (such as those philosopher-scientists in the ‘Vienna Circle’) were inspired by developments in mathematical logic and sought to codify all knowledge into precise scientific language as a means of obtaining objective knowledge.

An overall view of science therefore emerges that gives the impression that, by following a logical method (involving the formulation of hypotheses and then testing them), we crank the handle of science as it were and churn out new theories formed from empirical observations and mathematical logic. Grammatical truths. New objective knowledge, untainted by bias. Absolutely true. Irrespective of persons.

But this was an ideal view of science.

12.      From Objectivism to Relativism

This view came under attack in the 1940s to 1960s. Philosophers then looked at history of science and compared this idealized view of how science works with how specific prominent discoveries had actually come about; Why had theory b superceded theory a and why theory c had not. They applied the scientific method to science itself and found it wanting. Most prominent of these philosophers were:

  • Thomas Kuhn, author of  “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions”, and
  • Paul Feyerabend, the author of “Against Method” who applied the phrase  ‘anything goes’ to science.

But there were other, lesser-known philosophers such as:

  • Michael Polanyi, author of “Science, Faith and Society” who coined the term ‘tacit knowledge’, and
  • Imre Lakatos, author of “Proofs and Refutations”, responsible for the idea of a ‘research programme’.

For some, this analysis of science was an intellectual response to the horrors of the consequences of totalitarianism in the central Europe they had left for British and American universities. It was a reaction against absolute knowledge.

Following this, in the 1970s, sociologists and anthropologists took over the practice of observing science from the philosophers. Often, science was given no privileged position and hence was to be understood as just one of many valid ways of understanding the world. This is relativism.

I have thus described a transition through the 20th Century from (absolutist) objectivism to a (subjective) relativism.  And those mid-century philosophers were appalled at how their arguments against a totalitarian science were now being used against all science. They denied relativism and still believed in scientific progress.

So, how then do we steer a sensible course between these objective and subjective extremes?

13.     Between Objectivism and Relativism

From the (tentative) explanation of what our brains are doing, previously presented, we understand the brain as building models:

  • I am building coherent models corresponding to the environment, from my experiences.
  • You are building coherent models corresponding to the environment, from your experiences. Therefore
  • We are (separately) building models of the same (shared) environment – but they are not the same.

It is not that our individual knowledge is an approximation of an external absolute truth; truth is a relationship between a knower and its environment. There cannot be knowledge without a brain.

And this is not a relativist position either. We are constrained by our (common) environment – we are not free to believe just whatever we want. Our brains are similarly constructed, in a similar environment so there will be a tendency for them to construct similar knowledge of the common world.

Knowledge is a product of both the environment and the brain. It is a (pragmatic) process, an evolving relationship between brain & environment. It is neither absolutism nor relativism but a middle course.

14.     Michael Polanyi

In a previous section, the philosopher of science Michael Polanyi (1891-1976) was mentioned, as was positivism. In his works ‘Science, Faith and Society’, ‘Personal knowledge’ and ‘The Tacit Dimension’, Michael Polanyi set out a view of scientific discovery contrary to positivism. Positivism considers evidence to be the sole source of knowledge and, in doing so, rejects intuition but for Polanyi, intuition is essential for scientific advancement.

Intuition is needed to ‘see’ a problem. At this point, the solution cannot be justified. A personal commitment is needed to persevere with the solution until it can be made explicit and justified. So, explicit justification (the evidence) only comes afterwards. Polanyi quotes St. Augustine:

“faith precedes reason”

Any knowledge that can be justified must be explicit – spoken or written. Intuition is part of another class of knowledge, implicit knowledge (or as Polanyi called it, ‘tacit’ knowledge’), which cannot be justified. Tacit knowledge should not be rejected as a form of knowledge. The explicit ‘Scientific Method’ cannot yield truth by itself. Whilst we consciously focus our attention on that we are making explicit, we are sub-consciously ‘looking’ across a wider range. With this acceptance of intuition, it has to be the case that:

“We believe more than we can prove”

“We know more than we can tell”

The claim that not all knowledge can be justified is in contrast to traditional philosophical views, for example:

  • Descartes applies the methodological scepticism of radical doubt: to doubt everything that cannot be proved to be (absolutely / objectively) true.
  • Popper’s method of falsification, if applied to the extent he would have liked,  would have prematurely rejected many theories that have subsequently been shown to be  very successful.

Tacit knowledge has been referred to as ‘know-how’ as opposed to the ‘know-what’ of explicit knowledge.

Knowledge = explicit + tacit = know-what + know-how

Tacit knowledge provides the foundation for explicit knowledge:

“All knowledge is either tacit or rooted in tacit knowledge.”

15.      It’s All Knowledge

The point I’m wanting to make in all this is to tie this particular philosophical understanding (Pragmatism and Polanyi’s philosophy of science) to our recent understanding of the physical brain. As noted in the last part (‘Nature’s Secret Trick’):

  1. There is a physical uniformity of the Cortex, as noted by Vernon Mountcastle, and
  2. Friston provides a generalized functional account of what is physically happening in the brain – irrespective of what regions are doing what.

I am not saying things like:

  • ‘Language is being processed in the ventro-medial abc cortex.’
  • ‘Abstract reasoning is being processed in the anterior xyz cortex.’

I am saying that all predictive adaptation across the entire cortex is embodying knowledge and that we cannot split the high-level, conscious, language-based knowledge off from the rest of what’s going on, and give it a privileged position.

It’s all knowledge!

There is hierarchy within the structure of the cortex, but the same thing is basically being done at all levels of the hierarchy, and the (often neglected) lower levels are playing no less an important role as those ‘high profile’ areas:

  • Polanyi’s  pre-propositional, tacit knowledge plays an important role in intuition/insight which should not be disregarded.
  • Tamar Gendler has introduced the concept of ‘alief’ – sub-conscious beliefs, particularly when they are in conflict with our conscious beliefs.
  • Proprioception can be seen as a form of knowledge (knowledge of one’s own body) and associated with Howard Gardner’s ‘kinaesthetic intelligence’.

It leads us to what some would regard as preposterous claims such as:

Just because we cannot justify something, it doesn’t mean we do not know it!

This is a far cry from the established view of knowledge as ‘justified true belief’. We seems to be saying:

  • Justified? Not necessarily!
  • True?: Truth arises from an engagement between a subject and its environment. There is no knowledge that is objective, but we should not dismiss it as being just subjective either. It is personal.
  • Belief?: All knowledge/belief is embodied within the connectome.

A response to this might then be:

What you are describing is not knowledge at all, but belief.

But I am not interested in the word-play here. As A. J. Ayer said in ‘The Problem of Knowledge’, the problem of knowledge…

“…is to state  and assess grounds on which … claims to knowledge are made… It is a relatively unimportant question what titles you then bestow on them.”

Different cultures have drawn a distinction between ‘knowledge’ and ‘belief’  in different ways. For example, two alternatives to the ‘explicit justification’ argument are:

  • Belief is personal; knowledge is social. Knowledge is socially agreed.
  • Knowledge is first-hand, belief is second-hand. Knowledge is drawn from personal experiences whereas beliefs are less reliably based on others’ experiences.

To me, there is no sharp distinction between them. Instead there is a knowledge/belief continuum. At one end of the scale lies knowledge at which we are extremely confident we can act on the basis of what that knowledge predicts. There is a high degree of certainty. At the other end of the scale lie beliefs which we are prepared to act upon but with little confidence of their certainty. But we do not have an easy way of determining where on that scale a particular belief belongs, only a number of heuristics to guide us. The more the heuristics point towards certainty, the more we will classify a belief as knowledge. In their simplest forms:

  • It is knowledge because I have experienced it directly with my own senses.
  • It is knowledge because it fits in with what else I know.
  • It is knowledge because it has been verified by others.

There is no simple distinction.

(To be continued.)

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One Response to Knowledge is Personal

  1. Pingback: The Science Delusion, Part 3 | Headbirths

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