Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Knowledge is like an Island

In my last post I asked if Science can cover all forms of understanding and knowledge. Is scientific inquiry unbounded? I suggest that it does have bounds. Here are the reasons that I suggest this.

First, science is bounded by human understanding. Human beings are finite creatures. That is we have limits. In fact we have pretty clear limits. There are only so many years that one human being can research a subject. We do a good job of getting around this with writing. Through writing I can learn what someone before me discovered about say geology. This is a large part of why science keeps moving forward. Still the time that I spend learning from those who came before is time that I am not spending learning new things myself. It takes a decade or two to really master most areas of inquiry now. As our knowledge grows so will the time that it takes to master that knowledge. This is part of the reason people become specialists.

Another reason people become specialize is that human brains seem to be better at some forms of understanding than others. For instance, my older daughter does not do well in school. Now, shes not failing, but she does struggle and she has failed a class or two. Many would say she is not "smart". I suppose that is true as most people limit the definition of smart to academic pursuits. On the other hand, I have never seen her pickup an instrument that she could not play, essentially on the first try. She has played; piano, violin, saxophone, recorder, flute, guitar, bells, and various percussion instruments. Most she never had lessons for. The first time she picked up a flute she not only was able to play it, but was playing a couple of tunes in short order. She is also amazing with color and layout. That is they way her brain is wired. My younger daughter is more like me. She sees school as a nuisance and looks forward to getting on the Internet so she can learn something. She is essentially a straight A student (there are occasional B's especially in classes that really bore her like Math). In a similar way some scientists really grok physics, or meteorology. This is part of human nature, but it means that people need to be wired to really understand a subject. Rarely do people do well in multiple subjects and no one is good in all subjects.

Beyond the question of human understanding there are types of knowledge that are unknowable. I am not just talking about things we do not currently know. Psychology is an example of an area we currently know very little about. My discomfort with the term smart is an example. I have taught, and therefore have created tests. I know how difficult it is to create a test that will tell me objectively how much a person knows on a subject. There is an entire area of study just on testing. It is not an objective area of study, because we do not yet have objective measures for things like intelligence. So does that mean its not science? No I think the term should be fledgling science. Electricity was not well understood, just a hundred years ago. Still people with inquiring and skeptical minds worked hard at understanding electricity. The results, in addition to several areas of scientific inquiry, is that our societies and lives have been transformed. So I am not talking about things we simply do not know yet, when I say there are unknowable areas of knowledge.

So what is a fact that is not knowable. How about the start of the universe. We assume that the universe started some time some how, but how do you run an experiment on the origin of the universe? We cannot observe it. We can observe the after effects. We look around at the universe and presume that there was a start. This is based on our understanding of existence rather than on any objective facts that we know about the start of the universe. Everything has a start after all. Doesn't it? I feel comfortable saying that everything has a start even though I cannot prove it. If you spend a little time thinking about it I am sure you can come up with several other examples of things that we accept because they are obvious, rather than because they are provable. Some of those things are not worth proving, but some are actually unprovable.

Monday, July 7, 2008

The Objective of Objective fact

Science is all about objective facts. The basis of scientific thought is that reality can be observed and understanding gained from that observation. This assume that there is an objective reality. That is a reality that is common to all. Wiktionary's first definition of objective is "
A material object that physically exists. " Again we have the assumption that there is a physical consistent reality. The question of existence is ontological in nature. The question of knowing that there is a consistent physical reality is epistemological however. It also is not known.

There is no established proof of consistent objective reality. Interestingly it is beyond scientific inquiry because scientific inquiry is based on the knowledge that a consistent objective reality exists. One cannot apply the scientific method without accepting that there is an objective reality. Without the scientific method there is no science. Therefore one cannot use science to establish that there is an objective reality. It is something we accept. This is not a bad thing. In fact it is the only reasonable position, as far as I am concerned. Still it is important to note that all "objective" findings are based on this assumption. There is a name for this type of assumption, its called an axiom. An axiom is a truth that is considered self evident. In other words it is considered obvious. This is clearly dangerous ground. It is obvious that the world is flat. The world is not flat, but that is not obvious.

I do not wish you to walk away with an idea that all of science is junk. It is not! However, science is nothing more than a tool. Like any tool it is constantly being sharpened and refined. Over time we have learned to apply it and gotten remarkable results. We have also gotten terrible results. As with anything that we attempt to model, care needs to be taken to not take the model too seriously. Science is a powerful tool, but only where it applies. Science only works for understanding objective facts. Things that can be observed and measured by our current technology. Science will continue to grow, but will it grow forever?

Can science continue to grow until it can explain everything or is it limited? Is it limited by those who practise it? Sounds like a good question for my next post. How far can science take us?

Friday, June 27, 2008

So what is is?

A recent president tried to avoid some legal issues by asking what is is. This is sad, but I thought I would get some mileage out of that statement to start this post about things. One of the mistakes that I notice people make routinely is to grant existence to a lack of something. As one of my Intel officers used to like to say, "The lack of information is not information". That is to say that the absence of a thing is not a different thing.

One of the most obvious examples is vacuum. Vacuum is the absence of matter. One "creates" vacuum by removing everything from an area. Vacuum has properties and can be measured, but it is not a thing. We say that vacuum fills the void between the stars, but of course vacuum does just the opposite. It does not fill the void.

Let's another try an example, darkness. We talk about darkness all the time. We talk about how it comes into a room. How darkness falls on the landscape. How the darkness can stalk us, or surprise us. We talk about how the darkness robs our vision. The interesting thing here is that there is no such thing as darkness. I know your saying but it does get dark. There is darkness under my desk/couch/foot, what have you. That is true, but darkness is not a thing, rather it is the absence of light.

Final example, cold. Cold, like darkness and vacuum, is not a thing, but the absence of heat. This is perhaps more surprising to us as we experience cold fairly directly. This is especially true if you live fairly far from the equator. Cold is not a thing though, that is why we don't have a machine that creates cold. Wait Pat, now I have you, my refrigerator creates cold, doesn't it? No it doesn't, your refrigerator moves heat. It moves it from inside to the outside (you know those hot coils on the back of the fridge). Cold is the absence of heat.

Does that change anything? Yes and no. Obviously it changes things, like how a refrigerator works. But it doesn't change the fact that you put Ice Cream in the freezer, cause you want it cold. There are times however when we get ourselves in trouble thinking that we understand a thing, that really isn't a thing at all.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

What do I know about what I know?

Epistemology is the study of knowledge. It is the study of truth. Given that I am not a philosophy major, how did I become interested in Epistemology? Well it started because I am interested in Information Science, what used to be called Library Science. The difference between Information Science and Library Science is that Library Science in addition to focusing on how to acquire, organize and find information, also concerns itself with preservation and the public service aspects of a Library. Information Science is focused on handling information only. I don't have any issues with Library Science, and am happy that many people choose to study it, but they typically are interested in becoming a librarian, or corporate archivist. So we come again to the question why am I interested in Information Science?
It started when I was in the Marine Corps. I worked in Intelligence. I spent my days reading other peoples ideas of what was going on in the World and why they thought that. One aspect of this that I found interesting was the why end of it. The nature of Intelligence work is that one cannot verify most of the information and ideas you are dealing with. This is not because they are not object facts, but because verification would involve the cooperation of nations that are not your friend. So how do you verify that a thing is true, if you cannot use the scientific method and create an experiment. This is obviously valuable for verifying secrets of your enemies, but it may also be valuable for verifying information that is either not objective or impractical to test. I will talk more about non-objective facts later, lets start with things that are impractical to test.
You wake up in the morning and you put your feet on the floor. You are about to stand up when you realize that you do not know if the floor is solid. You know it used to be solid (when you came to bed last night), but is it still solid. You could experiment on the floor. Perhaps send it to a lab for a structural integrity check? No too expensive, time consuming and it would involve removing the floor. It would also involve you walking on the floor (in order to reach the phone). You could keep a stick next to your bed. Still not very convenient. You could have faith in the floor. This is the standard approach. Obviously, this is a silly example, but it does server well I think to point out a hole in our apparently objective and rational life.
So how do you know the floor of your bedroom is solid? Well you know that it is solid enough to hold up your bedroom furniture. Though this does not guarantee that a change in the weight distribution wont end in misery, it makes it substantially less likely. You know that the floor has been protected from the elements. So damage to the floor since last night is less likely. You can see how you can continue to make statements about what you do know and how that effects the likelihood that the floor is sound. This is an exercise in Epistemology.
Lets face it, that was a silly example. Also talking about what we know about what we know often ends up creating silly sentences. Like that one for instance. It is difficult to think this way, as we take knowledge for granted. That is we take the existence of knowledge for granted.

Hope you enjoy this blog.

Pat O