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

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