Monday, April 29, 2013

Knowledge, Faith, And Zealotry

Mark Butterworth's piece just below got me thinking about the difficulties involved in distinguishing claims of knowledge from statements of opinion, such that we can distinguish what may be known from what can only be believed or disbelieved. It's a good topic for a quiet Monday morning, all of whose "news" seems to be about the recent White House Correspondents' Dinner.

As with so many other questions over which men dispute, the key to the puzzle is linguistic: the accurate and appropriate use of words.

Whenever we claim knowledge, we must provide all the following:

  1. A compact yet definite statement of what we claim to know;
  2. A sufficiently well-defined context to which our knowledge applies;
  3. One or more predictions, whether explicit or implicit, that flow from our knowledge.

The first of these should require no explanation. No one can get by with a statement such as "I know everything." Knowledge must be expressed in definite statements that address real-world conditions and the events that occur within them.

The second requirement is actually a consequence of the first. A definite statement is a statement that addresses specific real-world conditions, not some completely unbounded, context-free domain. That's what it means to define, which is merely the English version of the Latin word "to limit."

The third requirement is also integral to any claim of knowledge: it must be testable, and the only possible test is prediction. Given the required context, do the predictions implied by the claim come true? If so, the claim becomes credible; if not, it can and must be dismissed.

Let's look at a couple of statements of knowledge as exercises. First up:

The sum of even numbers will be an even number.

We could test this one all day, creating column after column of even numbers and adding them up. We would never arrive at an odd sum, except by error. Indeed, as everything it refers to is an abstract object within a completely defined and enclosed artificial system, this statement is provable under the laws of that system (mathematics). It constitutes positive knowledge.

Our second trial will be more interesting:

An unsupported object will fall toward the Earth's center.

Hmmm. This one is very weakly supplied with specifics. What sort of "object?" And from where do we start? If a cloud of helium is chosen for our test object, the statement will fail. If we suspend a piece of pumice in water, the pumice will float, for yet another failure. Yet many other cases -- i.e., heavier-than-air objects left unsupported within Earth's atmosphere -- yield the predicted results. So the context for this statement must be refined, at the minimum, to embrace only those objects in those conditions.

Our third trial is the most important of all:

God notes each sparrow that falls.

This statement is not testable, for two reasons above all others:

  • We have no agreed-upon identity for God;
  • Even the most common conceptions of God put His actions outside verification.

Because the statement is not testable, the person who makes it is barred from claiming knowledge, regardless of how fervently he believes it.

The three test cases above are examples of three sorts of human conviction:

  • Mathematics;
  • Science;
  • Faith.

Mathematical knowledge -- i.e., a statement pertinent solely to objects within a well-defined formal system -- is the only sort that can be proved conclusively. This is possible specifically because such systems are completely abstract. Though they are sometimes applied to real-world conditions and events, they are capable of being divorced from external reality and manipulated in isolation. Thus, mathematical knowledge is atemporal.

Scientific knowledge -- i.e., a statement pertinent to objects in the physical realm, which have properties that are separable from any abstractions uttered about them -- cannot be proved conclusively, because the range of test cases for any such statement is infinite. However, a claim of scientific knowledge can be disproved: all it takes is one test case that fails to produce the predicted consequences. A series of hundreds or thousands of successfully tested predictions does not prove the claim; it merely allows us to build up confidence in it. Scientific knowledge, being about things that happen in observable reality, is inherently temporal.

Articles of faith are untestable propositions. They involve inherently undelimitable contexts, or contexts within which human powers of observation are nil. Thus, they can neither be proved nor disproved. They ought not to be classified as claims of knowledge...which does not render them uninteresting or irrelevant to the real world.

People don't argue about propositions in mathematics. Scientists sometimes argue over their conflicting claims, but once those claims become testable and are tested, argument will yield to experimental results. The propositional domain that occasions the most argument, despite the inherent impossibility of proving or disproving anything therein, is that of faith.

He who takes up a cause of any sort will naturally be concerned to spread the underlying convictions to as many other persons as he can. But the convictions behind a cause have a particular place in the partition of claims: nearly all of them are articles of faith.

Convictions about politics and economics are especially important in this regard. The contexts within which statements about these things are made are seldom perfectly well defined. Worse, they're seldom perfectly reproducible. These difficulties make it effectively impossible to prove or disprove such statements. We who have strong political or economic convictions must never imagine that those convictions are permanently beyond disproof. That makes it impossible to argue conclusively that those who reject them are wrong.

Here we come to the distinction between the advocate and the zealot.

He who argues for a proposition beyond proof and disproof can only demonstrate its logical coherence and cite examples of where it has had beneficial effects. He cannot eliminate all doubt about it without providing that perfect definition of context mentioned above. Worse, even causally clear statements about politics or economics can be challenged with a one-word rejoinder: "When?" Politico-economic predictions seldom come with time thresholds -- i.e., the specific time after the stimulus is applied that the predicted effects will manifest -- which frees the skeptic to retain his skepticism about how much we really know.

The advocate will concede all this. He'll be aware of the nature of knowledge and the difficulty of predictions that involve inherently uncontrollable contexts. The zealot will not. He will insist that he's absolutely right despite all counter-arguments. In his frustration, he's likely to resort to distasteful non-arguments, including attacks upon the intelligence and character of those who reject his thesis.

The zealot's error is mistaking faith for knowledge.

Many Gentle Readers will bridle at the above. We all have faith in certain propositions. Persons who are engaged in political or economic discourse are likely to be passionate about their particular faiths. But no degree of confidence in an idea, or emotional attachment to it, can transform faith into knowledge.

The central irony therein is that we who champion conservative, pro-freedom politico-economic ideas -- limited government, free markets, private arms rights, well-controlled borders, the privacy of the family, the sanctity of unborn life, and so forth -- are, on balance at least, far less likely to behave as zealots than those who oppose us. Leftists' inability to argue persuasively for their propositions evokes far more bad behavior from them than our spokesmen normally exhibit. There may be sin on both sides, but that doesn't mean the ledger of such things is balanced.

As Robert M. Pirsig noted in his classic Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, no one organizes marches or defames opponents over assertions that the Sun will rise in the east tomorrow. The moral in that observation should be impossible to miss.

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