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