Sunday, January 27, 2013

The problem of human knowledge

Well, I've already written 3,000 words and started a civil war today, so I think it's okay to call it good and write a blog post now.  I admit I'm bragging.  Back in the day, 5,000 words was a good day and I could have a day like that several times a week.  But back in the day I didn't have two small children, so pfffff.  I call a 3,000 word day a big achievement.

I've been thinking a lot lately about knowledge.  What, exactly, is it safe to say that we know for sure?

When I was younger, I thought the world was flat.  That puzzled me, because how did the sun get back to the east after setting in the west every day?  Finally I decided that it was a new sun every day, and that just as the world went on and on forever, there was an endless line of suns marching along, 24 hours apart.

When I was a little older and knew the world was round, I was confused about how the moon could be visible both during the day and at night.  Didn't that mean the people in China and Australia never got to see the moon, since it was always over Seattle?  I wanted to read a book by someone in those places, so I could see if they really didn't get to see the moon, and what that was like.

When I was in college, I took a course called Philosophy of Human Nature, which really should have been called Thomistic Anthropology, because St. Thomas Aquinas was our only source.  We spent weeks talking about the soul and how it was really indivisible but also had parts and these parts were something like the Trinity and OHMYGOSHSOCONFUSING.  I think I got a B in it.  But really there were only short moments during that class when anything made sense at all.

For instance, the proof for the immortality of the soul.  It went like this (advance apologies to anyone who DOES understand Aquinas, because I'm sure I'm doing this wrong): The human intellect can understand any material thing.  Because of this, it can't possibly be composed of any material thing.  Just like an eye can only discern color because it has no color (think of the pupil here, obviously); if it were yellow, it would only be able to see yellow, but since it has no color, it can discern any color.  Further proofs explain how if the soul is immaterial, it can't die, and QED.

I'd be stuck asking so many questions.  If being composed of something means you can't sense it, how come we can also comprehend immaterial realities?  Didn't St. Thomas know that your retina is actually red if you shine a light on it?  The same for any of the stuff we learned, like the process of intellection which is crazy weird.  How, I wondered, did we KNOW this stuff?  Were we actually learning anything at all, or simply learning the vocabulary that St. Thomas used for things that could just as well be explained differently?  (This last question got even more pressing in PHIL 202, Metaphysics.  Mainly I remember passing notes and getting a headache.  I was not cut out for philosophy.)

But there were moments when everything would come together and I would think, "Wait a second!  I actually GET this!  I KNOW now that the soul is immortal!"  Then I would read over the proof and think, "Wait.  I don't get it."

Maybe this class is a bad example, because I soon lost all confidence in the professor the day he told us that women possessed less of the image and likeness of God than men do because we have less of the rational faculty.  I date my identification as a feminist to that moment.  Thanks, Dr. C!  So perhaps the reason I couldn't fit this stuff in my head was that it just plain wasn't true, or not as true as it was presented to us.  Aquinas was a smart guy but (sneaky whispers) he wasn't exactly the last word on everything.

But it's happened in other classes too, other subjects -- when my brother tells me about string theory or I get going on physics problems.  While I'm doing it, it feels like it makes sense.  But an hour later I can't even wrap my head around it.  I don't know if I was right when I understood it, or right later on when I thought it was bosh.

We read stories of scientific discoveries, and there's always a moment when the scientist has a blinding flash of inspiration and hits upon the answer.  What we don't see is the moment when he wakes up the next morning and tries to redo his math.  And it may happen that he can't duplicate it, or he discovers that wonderful revelation was really that he dropped off a zero and he's going to have to start all over from scratch, and he doesn't get the Nobel for ten more years.

Have you ever stayed up late at night pondering reality and come up with a wonderful conclusion that explains everything?  And then the next morning you remember the conclusion, but when you think of going back through the steps that got you there, you think, "Ugh.  Work.  I'll just assume I was right the first time"?  States of mind have everything to do with what we know, or what we think we know, or what we have confidence that we know. 

It has been a habit of mine to re-prove the existence of God to myself from time to time, so that I know I can do it, and so that I don't get into the lazy habit of believing something without really understanding why.  But what if you're plowing through the various proofs (some of which make sense to me, and others of which don't, and I don't bother with) and you just don't feel like finishing?  And not because you are so sure of the existence of God that you don't need to, but because pressing through it is hard and you just don't want to?

I try to keep an open mind about everything.  That is to say, I have my opinions, but I try not to let them get so entrenched that I can't be convinced otherwise.  In the interests of this, I've lately been reading up on global warming, and it really seems to me that it's a real thing.  But who wants to do the research?  Most people I know don't.  They say, "These scientists seem to know what they're talking about, so it must be right," or, "I don't trust those quacks!  It's a hoax!"  I can't know for sure, not being a climatologist, but it seems worthy at least to try.  But it's much easier, and much more in tune with human nature, to let your emotions, your biases, and the opinions of those you surround yourself with to speak for you.

It bothers me that my mind is so fallible.  If I believed something firmly at six, and believe the opposite at twenty-six, how do I know I won't believe a third incompatible thing at forty-six?  When I met him, my husband was a firm monarchist who never attended any Mass that wasn't in Latin.  Now he prefers the plainest English Mass he can find, and he's a libertarian who rails against monarchists.  (He is railing against them now, in a debate about the French Revolution.  That man loves his debate society.)  I think he is closer to the truth now than he was then -- after all, my political beliefs have changed little in ten years, and he's come much closer to them -- but how does he know he's right this time?

On issues where everyone agrees, it's no problem.  On matters of controversy, it's much harder.  Let's list: vaccines, GMO's, evolution, the ideal human diet, child discipline, how common it is for a woman to lie about having been raped, whether gun control increases or decreases crime rates, global warming, whether a planned economy produces more prosperity than an unregulated one.  Mind you, these are all FACTS, facts that should be provable.  But I've researched all of these and the best anyone can give me is a really good guess.  Scientific studies are more fallible than most people think.  The best they can do is point toward a likelihood, and suggest further studies.  You can chop the data one way and get one answer, chop it another way and get a different one -- and that's with the same batch of data.

We do our best.  I tend to lean toward disbelieving those whom I know to have an ulterior motive, but in some ways pretty much everyone has an ulterior motive.  Is this person pro-vaccine because of science or because she would destroy her career as a doctor if she said differently?  Is this person anti-vaccine because of science or because he wants something to blame for his child's illness?  I also tend -- as most people do -- to believe things that are believed by people who share my other opinions.  That's part of why people's opinions are so clearly demarcated, why people who believe in gun control also usually believe in climate change, even though these two things aren't remotely related.

The scary part is that we have to actually make decisions based on our rather shaky knowledge.  Whether an embryo 28 days old is a person or not is a really vital, life-changing question.  We owe it to the truth to try to find it before acting ... but we can never be as sure about anything as we would like to be.  Because of this, I try to be humble about my beliefs.  I know that I have been wrong before, and may be again.  Of course I always think I am right, or I would change my mind.  But this means the other person might be wrong, and obviously being wrong is painful, so that even if I do convince them, they might pretend I haven't because they don't want to admit they're wrong.  So humility goes a long way.

There are some things I believe with a bit more certainty.  I believe that the world exists and that my senses are credible.  I personally have great confidence in my senses, and less confidence the more abstract something gets.  I also believe that nature makes sense on a fundamental level, and the more I learn about biology and the other sciences, the more convinced of this I become.  I believe that loving is a good thing, and that hurting others is a bad thing.  I believe in the ability of my gut to tell me when something is wrong or right. 

I do believe God exists and the Catholic Church is the true one, but after this it gets difficult.  God exists, but what is he like?  A lot of people, Catholics included, seem to think there's a book somewhere that holds "Church teaching" and it's infallible and everything in that book is the stuff you have to believe.  It's actually way more complicated than that; there are defined dogmas and the ordinary magisterium and all kinds of levels from "you really have to believe this or you're not Catholic" to "most saints and theologians and Popes thought this, so it's almost certainly true" down to "St. Padre Pio said it, but you don't actually have to believe that."  If you are a Catholic, that research is up to YOU.  You can just trust some priest to interpret it for you, but what if later you find he was a sociopath who founded an entire order just as a cover for abusing little boys?  (Not to name names, ahem ahem.)  You have to start all over.

I'm not trying to write another 3,000 words here, but I want to know.  How do you live with this level of uncertainty?  Or is everyone else more sure of things than I am, and I just am more of a doubter than most?


Charlemagne said...

"A lot of people, Catholics included, seem to think there's a book somewhere that holds "Church teaching" and it's infallible and everything in that book is the stuff you have to believe."

Is this not the Catechism?

Sheila said...

Sadly, no. The Catechism is not actually infallible, and while it's a good summary of many things that are infallible, there are a lot of questions it doesn't answer. I got into a big fight over it once because the CCC's view on the death penalty is exactly the same as mine ... only to find that there were many Catholics who disagreed and had documents to support their view as well. I still think I'm right, but it turns out "the Catechism says so" doesn't convince a lot of people, especially traditionalists, who would prefer to cite Aquinas (who is also not infallible).

And then there's always the matter of how to interpret the words. The CCC sounds (to me) very libertarian; Gaudium et Spes less so. This made it difficult to debate that important topic, "Can a Catholic be a libertarian?" without talking at cross purposes.

Meanwhile Catholics everywhere keep pushing on me various ideas and opinions that they think you HAVE to believe to be Catholic, but aren't in the Catechism at all: daily Rosary, everything our Lady said at Fatima, chapel veils, etc. I end up falling back on my own research.

Enbrethiliel said...


Your post has questions I haven't asked myself in a long time! I think that living with a fallible mind has become easier since I accepted I'd never know absolutely everything in this life. (That may seem obvious to everyone, but I once really thought I'd know. Like a gnostic.)

I also feel, like Shakespeare, that so much of what I'm doing here is just acting. And it's often fun to play the role of, say, a men's rights activist. ;-) The longer I stay in a role, however, the harder it is to slip out of it. And the harder it is for other people to believe me when I tell them what I'm doing. Especially if they don't think of themselves as acting, too. (Did I ever tell you about the time a white separatist friend of mine convinced me that the Holocaust never happened? I actually slipped into that conviction for a few days before I hauled myself out again. What an acid trip! And very scary!)

Something else coming to mind is Jim Henson's rule that children allowed backstage at The Muppet Show never be shown any puppet lying "lifeless" in a box. But at the end of every grand production I put on, I need to see the self I was playing lying lifeless in a box.

But it's really closer to the end of The Man Who Was Thursday, when all the masks fall off at last and all the characters see that they've just been fighting people they fundamentally agree with.

Of course, the problem is that people can get very seriously hurt before the masks fall off. If you die in the Matrix, you die for real. Fallibility has some very serious consequences.

I think that the most dangerous idea is that one will never change his mind. It implies that one's mind doesn't need to change, because it is already right. If people don't remember a time when they thought very differently about something, believing they were completely right the whole time, then they might not be able to see themselves as fallible. Or to see anything from a different point of view.

(I may be speaking too soon. There are a lot of zealous converts--not just to religion, but to various ideologies--whose beliefs have made dramatic shifts and who still think they are 100% right.)

Along with humility, I think that empathy and imagination are necessary. People must be able (and willing!) to see things from another's perspective.

Sheila said...

Wise words. It seems you're like me, then -- less prone to thinking you're infallible, and more prone to walking so many miles in someone else's shoes that by the end of the trip you have no idea whose shoes are whose. The balance is difficult.

Anonymous said...

I am not remotely qualified to comment on Catholic thoughts on proof of God. To me, faith, by it's very nature, does not require proof. And yet, if I hadn't experienced the things I *personally* have, I might still NOT believe. So...I understand that quest.

I couldn't help but comment on the thoughts on science though.
A properly designed study or examination of data will show the same results, no matter how you slice the data. Evolution, for example, is not remotely controversial in the scientific community. Data used by Creationists is not tossed as anomalous because it doesn't fit the model, but because it could not be replicated.

For any scientific hypothesis to become theory, the ability of a completely different team of scientists to replicate the data is key. Theory is about as close as you can get to "fact" in science.

One thing many people don't understand is that gravity is a theory too, and a more controversial one than evolution (to scientists). After all, where is the graviton?

Tangent: It has been such and exciting decade in paleontology. I find it tragic that the actual findings are not thrilling enough for some. Knowing that modern birds descended from dinosaurs makes bird watching even more fun, at least to me.

Sheila said...

Isn't the Higgs Boson where gravity comes from? I admit to not getting a lot of the hardcore science stuff like that.

See, it's all very well to say "the scientific community agrees on X." But the scientific community isn't infallible. Sometimes good studies aren't published because they challenge accepted thought. Evolution is a good example; there is so much controversy about it, and I keep hearing of scientists who were silenced because they didn't agree with it. It may not be a controversy within the scientific community, but the scientific community has been wrong about many things, just like I have. There was a time when you couldn't even suggest that the earth revolved around the sun; everyone KNEW otherwise. Know what I mean? I DO actually believe in evolution. The science is such that I can only reach two conclusions: either evolution happened or God laid down misleading evidence to make us THINK it did, in which case what kind of a sadist would do that?! Since God can neither deceive, nor be deceived, my vote is for evolution.

John is way into the archeopteryx. (Is that spelled right?) Cool stuff.

What really got me, on the topic of God, was reading a Catholic book (Yes or NO, by Peter Kreeft) that said that you actually couldn't prove the existence of God beyond doubt. I had thought you could. What you can do is prove that it is very credible, and then make the choice (as you do with any piece of evidence) to believe in God, or come up with some other explanation. That was ... a little startling to me.

Belfry Bat said...

No, interacting with Higgs is whence the electroweak bosons are supposed to get their particular effective inertiae; gravity is something else.

I recently refrained/delayed posting a remark about this, particularly that "gravity" isn't a theory, it's the observed fact that things fall, and that things with denser inertia tend to win at falling when competing with things with less-dense inertia; e.g., dense water is seen to be more effective at falling than woods or hollow metal shells. What really properly are theories are (1) the claim that this will always be the case; (2) Newton's inverse-square theory of universal gravitation; (3) Einstein's geometrodynamic equations. And graviton theory is another.

Back to Higgs/gravity: these theories actually have rather little to say about where gravity comes from. The popular opinion seems to be that inertia itself is the source of curvature, but it's very hard to test this hypothesis. At the best we can probably confirm that the nuclear isospin content of matter doesn't much affect gravitational source strength, because we can compare the inertia and gravity of the Earth (which is more than half neutrons, by inertia) with those of Jupiter (which is almost all protons, by inertia).

Sheila said...

Thanks, BB ... I think. I'm afraid half of your vocabulary here is beyond me, but perhaps some of my readers will know what you're talking about.

Anonymous said...

Apostolic Constitution Fidei Depositum, On the Publicaiton of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, by John Paul, Bishop:
"The Catechism of the Catholic Church, which I approved....I declare it to be a sure norm for teaching the faith and thus a valid and legitimate instrument for ecclesial communion."
"This catechism is given to them that it may be a sure and authentic reference text for teaching catholic doctrine...."

Sheila said...

Yes, a teaching tool and a reference text. But not, unfortunately, an exhaustive list of what's infallible and what's not.

I'm glad to have it, though, don't get me wrong. I'd be even more confused without it!

Belfry Bat said...

Oh, there couldn't possibly be an exhaustive list of infallible propositions; of the past ones, probably. There is a daunting opus by Ludwig Ott, "Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma" that lists various things as de fide (Catholics must not deny the true sense) or widely-held beliefs of Doctors and Fathers or pious legend... but this was sort-of what Blessed Newman was getting-at with his essay On the Development of Doctrine and all that; and people who didn't understand that we'll never have said it all (Calvin and Wyclif come to mind) have been unnecessarily scandalized by very old beliefs finding new articulations. It's quite compatible with belief in the Real Presence not to understand or jump on Aristotle's particular metaphysics or Aquinas' adjustments of them; even though we also know that the impanation-type notions proposed specifically against Aquinas are wrong.

... F.w.i.w., I've known plenty of men less than usually endowed of the rational faculty; and obviously there are facets of the Divine that are seen more clearly in Mulier than in Vir. So.

Sheila said...

I think we actually have Ott's monolith, ahem, I mean monograph. Might need to take a flip through it.

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