You Don’t Know Jack

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Science tells us the capital”T” Truth. We don’t think it, we don’t believe it, we don’t suspect it. We know it because science is repeatable, it’s systematic and we can verify everything science says through empirical methods. We’re smart, us scientific people, we aren’t a bunch of creation scientists or fortune tellers or primitive Amazonian tribesmen toiling in ignorance.  We don’t make assumptions, we test and we test and we destroy ignorance wherever we find it. We are not slaves to prejudice, we seek to know the world as it objectively is. We believe what is empirically true and thus avoid faith, avoid superstition.

Or do we? I’ve recently been talking with a few fellow bloggers of vaguely philosophical bent and I can’t help thinking the position demonstrated (straw-manned?) above goes too far. I thought and thought I’m beginning to wonder if faith isn’t unavoidable. I initially rebelled at this because, at its base, faith really sucks.

Faith has no limitations. If I don’t use reason to cudgel my faith into shape there’s nothing to stop me believing that I’m a divinely chosen cucumber with the sacred duty to eat toenail clippings. Faith cannot be reasoned with, it can be overcome only with force. If I believe in God X and his command to kill all of Population Y, and Population Y believes in God Z who says to kill me, there is no way to negotiate. Faith is not sensitive to reality, it is not adaptive, it does not improve. The best weapons we have for controlling the chaos and madness of faith are philosophy and the sub-species of philosophy we call empirical science. The question then becomes this, can we get to philosophy or science without faith?

To answer these questions, we need to define terms. Empiricism is a theory stating that knowledge comes solely or primarily from sensory experience. In other words, we see things, smell things, touch things and zap things with electricity to reveal their nature. This is how the entire scientific method works. No empiricism, no science. Second is objectivity. When someone says a fact or observation is the objective truth, they are saying that the world exists independent of us. In other words, if you accept objective reality you believe that a rock is still a rock even if there are no people around to call it a rock. Neither objectivity nor empiricism seem at all radical to us, but that could just be a consequence of the culture – it could be normal to us in the same sense that witch doctors were normal to our ancestors.

The first, basic assumption an empiricist must make is that our senses tell us the truth. If my eyes lie to me, what is the point of graphing data points on a piece of paper? If my ears deceive me, how could I catalog bird calls or tune a violin? Seeing is believing and all those associated cliches. Unfortunately, we know for certain that our senses do lie. We know that if we rub our hands quickly over a tennis racket it will create the illusion of a velvety texture, among a host of other tactile illusions. We know that we can trick the eye into perceiving motion where there is none. We can trick our minds into inventing expected colors, rather than those which actually exist. We can discover and overcome these illusions by the use of our other senses – after all, they are illusions exactly because we know they do not represent Truth. It’s far from obvious, however, that we can suss out all, or even most, other illusions in the same way.

And the problems run deeper. How do we know our empirical observations are measuring the states of objective reality (if objective reality exists, which it may not) and not the mechanisms by which we perceive? When scientists say things like “the universe seems to be made from math” is it not possible (likely?) that they are actually describing the lens of our perception rather than the object under observation? Is it even possible to disentangle the former from the latter?

This doesn’t even get into the assumptions of causality, without which science is useless. Causality is the belief that every action has a cause, that things do not begin moving or change course for no reason. Without a cause and effect relationship, any empirical experiment is a waste of time. When we calculate the velocity of a comet, for example, we take into account present velocities, gravitational effects and drag. We control for these factors because they act upon the comet in causal, predictable ways. We do not take into account the wrath of Zeus or the magical incantations of Druid priests because those things are non-causal and cannot be measured empirically.

In our practical, day to day lives, causality works marvelously well. We calculate the energy stored in the chemical bonds of gasoline, take into account vehicle weight, thermal efficiency and frictional losses and tell you that your car will get 30 miles per gallon but won’t suddenly sprout pumpkins. We calculate the forces acting on steel or wood and predict that the chair you’re currently sitting upon will support your weight but won’t dissolve your skin. We can run causality back billions of years. Our solar system exists because a long time ago several other stars exploded and created the heavy elements necessary to make an earth. Our galaxy exists because gravity works in predictable ways and the motions of the Milky Way are the casual consequences of that gravity. However, all this wonderful causality breaks down in at least two places I know of – the Big Bang and the quantum scale.

We don’t know what happened before the Big Bang because, physics tells us, time has no meaning before the Big Bang and if there’s no time, there’s no causality. We don’t know what caused the Big Bang because the answer seems to be “nothing caused the Big Bang, it just happened.” Information is obliterated before the Big Bang. Entropy suddenly ceases to exist before the Big Bang. The beginning of every single thing we see, touch, ponder and eat comes from the Big Bang and the Big Bang happened for no reason at all. It is, by definition, beyond the grasp of empiricism and yet it is the source of every single thing an empiricist can examine.

Quantum theory screws with causality in the sense that quantum particles move, entangle and disappear with apparently no causal reason. However, more interestingly, quantum theory also pours sand into the fine gears of objectivity. One of the biggest mind-screws I’ve ever seen is the Quantum Observer Effect.

In short, the Quantum Observer Effect empirically demonstrated that, at least with quantum particles, the world does not exist independently from ourselves. When I look at an electron, I collapse it into a particle with one location and one trajectory. I, in other words, make it real and I make it causal. When I don’t look at the electron, I make it into a probability wave, a sort of mushy statistical blurr where it exists everywhere at once. Objectivity breaks with quantum theory, a rock with no people around to observe it is not a rock, it’s a statistical fuzz.

***

So what does all this mean? We believe our senses because we don’t have a choice. We choose to believe we are measuring reality in our empirical frameworks, but we have no way of proving we’re not simply recording the ways our brains function. We don’t even have a way to prove we aren’t in a Matrix environment. We could just as easily be computer programs or spirits or dreaming or a random collection of quantum fluctuations. We accept empiricism in spite of the fact that we know empiricism breaks down when explaining our ultimate origins. We know it’s not the capital T Truth.

In short, we are empiricists because empiricism is a useful fiction and we don’t have anything better. We are limited and lost and it’s very likely we don’t have the capacity to know capital T Truth, if such a thing even exists. We can choose to believe our senses, but we must do so from faith. We can choose to believe in objective reality, but we must do so from faith. With this in mind, it is perhaps better to drop our pretensions of superiority and admit that we fundamentally don’t know shit.

Ben Garrido is the author of The Blackguard and the upcoming novel The Potency. 

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17 comments

  1. Lots of interesting points here! Thanks for linking to me!

    I think knowledge must begin in what you might call faith. “Faith” however, is a bit loaded with all kinds of associations to religion and has connotations of being antithetical to reason. I would probably use the word “belief” instead, as one can hold a true opinion about something that is verifiable, without having knowledge.

    Why must knowledge begin in faith-belief? It’s the same in science, an hypothesis leads to more evidence which leads to more theories, etc. In other areas of knowledge I think it’s similar, but with more or less rigor. We have to hold some opinions in order to get by, and we can hold these tentatively until something comes along to make us question them. On other cases we can use our minds and available empirical data on the matter to make the belief turn into knowledge, or at least an approximation toward knowledge….although I don’t want to have to define knowledge! I’m dodging that one.

    There are also shades of belief. Some are closer to truth than others.

    Also, on the subject of objectivity. What about objectivity within subjectivity? In other words, we can analyze all our beliefs from a subjective POV and some will come out being more objective than others. For instance, I believe vanilla ice cream is better than chocolate ice cream. Such a “belief” (we would call it rather a matter of taste) is obviously subjective. I could go into the grey areas of aesthetics, but I think you get the point. “2+2=4” comes across as objective, even taking into consideration I can never extrapolate my own mind in these matters to reach out to some nominal thing-in-itself, (in other words, something “out there”, outside of me).

    1. My pleasure, your blog has given me a lot to think about.

      Objectivity in subjectivity – yes, precisely. One of the things I believe about science is that it’s a very useful, very pragmatic and extremely elaborate system built upon shared subjective assumptions. In this sense, it’s like any other belief system governed by reason. If your fundamental assumption about the universe is that the King James Bible represents absolute truth, then you can elaborate that out into infinity. You probably won’t do a very good job explaining empirical reality, but that’s the point, empiricism is not the fundamental assumption in a creationist’s system.

      The way we settle these fundamental assumptions is, I think, a form of might makes right. Empiricism triumphed over shamanism because more or less empiricial societies, making subjective empirical assumptions, used those assumptions to build guns and battle ships. The shamanists, elaborating off their subjective assumptions, could not build guns and thus perished or were assimilated.

      I suspect that empiricism would very quickly meet the same fate if, tomorrow, the Pope or some Ayatollah suddenly grew the ability to vaporize anyone they dislike with their brain waves.

      “… one can hold a true opinion about something that is verifiable, without having knowledge.”

      Would you be so kind as to elaborate on this? I’m not sure I understand.

      Thanks,
      Ben

      1. Well, I’m not a big fan of “might makes right” but you’ll see that whole idea fleshed out in my novel. On the other hand, I think you’re using the phrase in a different way. Unless, of course, you are a relativist.

        I’m a rationalist for sure, but a funny kind of rationalist who really is an empiricist, but not in the classical or strictly scientific sense. It would take me a very long time to explain, but I’d say for the most part I buy into a phenomenological outlook.

        I do believe that all knowledge begins in subjectivity, but objectivity within that subjectivity is still preferred. On the other hand, if there is a God and God decided to give me some sort of divine revelation, I’d take it. I don’t know what I’d do with it, but I’d take it.

        The whole thing about true opinion comes from Plato. Suppose you believe that someone is going to walk through your door. You might have some reason to believe that or you might not. Truth is, you don’t KNOW. But then someone walks through the door. Your belief turns out to be true, even though you really had no knowledge of its truth. That’s true opinion.

        Hope that helps!

        Tina

  2. Reblogged this on American Soustannie and commented:
    I don’t often reblog because I figure if you want to read what I think is worth reading, you’ll look at the blogs I’ve liked. But I don’t just like this – I love it. I don’t understand it for an instant – it makes my head spin – and it’s beautiful.

    Also … I wonder what we would become if God stopped observing us?

    1. Thanks for the reblog. I’m glad you liked this post. 🙂

  3. I read something once that suggested gravity is god. Or maybe it was visa versa. I quite like that thought. However, not sure where that leaves us atheists….floating around randomly, one assumes.

    1. Haha, the god of gravity does not seem to be a jealous god.

      Actually, I think the debate between atheists and theists is really a fight over a concept that is far more derived, far more elaborated than the necessary concept of “God.” Namely, the existence or not of bearded and moody men who live in the clouds and inspire people to write holy books.

      None of that is necessary for the bare concept – creation. And actually, if you strip away the moral components (which are not necessary for a creator), the anthropomorphic baggage (really not necessary) or even the expectation of god’s personal involvement in the details of your life (super duper not necessary), then you are left with something very similar to the unmoved mover.

      Indeed, I’m not sure there is a difference between the base-model god and the unmoved mover.

  4. Well done post. One thing. Having lived and worked with some Amazon tribes people, I can assure you they are hardly primitive. That myth is perpetrated as an excuse to take their resource rich land.

    1. Thanks for the comment.

      I don’t actually have an opinion one way or the other on primativeness and modernity. I wrote that because it’s fun to play on (often justified) anger with superstious Abrahamics and the desire for respectful cultural petting zoos for superstitious native groups. These desires are contradictory and yet cohabitate the worldviews of many, many people and I really enjoy messing with that sort of thing.

      Thanks again,
      Ben

    2. I just thought of something with regards to this.

      Why does the “primitive” excuse work for taking their land? How does the excuse function?

      Thanks,
      Ben

  5. I’ll go with the word “belief” instead of faith. I’m not sure we “accept” empiricism so much as we use it as a tool because it’s actually quite an excellent tool. But the way in which we use it is usually a bit Bayesian so yes, there’s a back and forth effect.

    1. Yeah, I know what you’re saying. I went with the word faith because a) I wanted to be provocative and b) I’m not sure that a purely religious person describing his/her faith in a religious schema is actually different from the feeling a pure empiricist has describing his/her belief in the observable truth of the universe.

      Given what I believe to be a very likely overlap in the intended meaning of the empiricists’ belief and the relgious person’s faith, and given the fact I’m basically suggesting intellectual humility, equating the two terms served my purposes.

      This is not to embrace radical relativism, however. In a pragmatic sense, empiricism is a wonderful tool. The things it allows us to do are amazing. However, as I tried to show with the causality problems and the objectivity problems, empiricism probably cannot explain the universe.

      In this sense, it’s a lot like religion, again. If you are looking for an organizing, pragmatic system with which to forge hunter gatherers into the first civilizations, religion seems like a very likely tool. In this sense, it was extremely useful on a pragmatic level. However, just like empiricism, it had limitations. The absence of repeatability, the inability to make good predictions.

      This is to say that pragmatic value does not prove, or even strongly suggest, ultimate truth. In other words, I would be shocked if empiricism as we know it is the paradigm in a thousand years.

      Thanks for the comment. You gave me a lot to think about,
      Ben

  6. “And the problems run deeper. How do we know our empirical observations are measuring the states of objective reality (if objective reality exists, which it may not) and not the mechanisms by which we perceive? When scientists say things like “the universe seems to be made from math” is it not possible (likely?) that they are actually describing the lens of our perception rather than the object under observation? Is it even possible to disentangle the former from the latter?” Favourite paragraph I’ve read anywhere in a long time- possibly ever! It’s interesting that most atheists I know, rant about there being no god in the same way hardcore theists rant about the contrary. I don’t have a religion or believe in a god but I do believe in there being a lot we can’t see that we can work with- and that different people perceive these energies through their own brains that are unique so place different words on them. I also believe I perceive the world how I do and just because someone else sees it a totally different way, neither of us needs to be ‘wrong’. Like you say at the end, none of us ‘know’ ANYTHING! I believe the only way to get any wisdom is to admit we know absolutely nothing- and to be ok with that- then, paradoxically, wisdom and knowledge can start to grow! Thanks for posting this, I really loved it!

    1. It’s a very Socratic way to look at the world and, pragmatically, I think it’s a good way to screen out a lot of crazy folks to claim to have ABSOLUTE TRUTH.

      Thanks for the comment,
      Ben 🙂

  7. You are, here, essentially talking about epistemology: the philosophy of what we can claim we know. It’s important to understand there are two types of knowledge: a priori and a posteriori. The former are things that are independent of experience; they are true by definition. The canonical example is: All bachelors are unmarried. The latter type of knowledge, a posteriori, is based on experience. Or empirical evidence.

    As you suggest, the only absolutely true fact we know for sure is that we exist. As conscious minds, we can recognize a priori truths, but we’re dependent on our senses for empirical evidence related to a posteriori truths. So the epistemological question is: what does it take to justify believing something is true.

    We accept empiricism as “probably true” largely due isotropy in time and space. A given experiment performed 100 years or 10 years or 1 year ago or today has the same result. A given experiment performed here, there or anywhere has the same result. You can perform the experiment facing north or south and get the same result. This consistency of experience justifies our belief in an apparent external reality (or something that acts like one).

    We are left with the one certain fact, we ourselves exist, plus any a priori truths we can assert without contradiction, and then various contingent truths (of varying degrees of certainty) grounded by consistent experience.

    1. This is definitely an epistomological article. However, I’m trying to go beyond what you mention here.

      There are large limitations to empiricism represented by both the causality problems, inherent uncertainty and the quantum problems that, to me at least, imply that empiricism cannot be capital T True.

      Correct me if I’m wrong, but your argument for accepting empiricism is basically pragmatic. I am fine with this as, in pretty much everything except metaphysics, I think it’s the best way to live.

      However, the problem with depending entirely on pragmatism for your metaphysics comes from one big source – almost every empirical thing we believe now is very likely to be “wrong” in 100 years. You can extend this backwards in time and see how pragmatism led people to believe all sorts of things we don’t take seriously now – god-kings, helio-centric universes, the magical healing powers of willow bark, Newtonian physics, Social Darwinism.

      Thanks for swinging by,
      Ben 🙂

      1. “Correct me if I’m wrong, but your argument for accepting empiricism is basically pragmatic.”

        It’s more of an epistemological analysis — it is a metaphysical argument.

        It’s common to project the ignorance of yesterday to imaging the same ignorance as being true today, but those things aren’t actually equal. There are many areas we understand very thoroughly today and which will never be ruled “wrong” such as we once did epicycles or phlogiston. It seems incredibly unlikely we’ll ever deny that reality is quantized or that we orbit the sun, for example.

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