Wednesday, April 29, 2015

How We Know Things

Ok, so I've said that discussions of epistemology make my eyes glaze over and that's very true.  It's not that the subject is unimportant, it's just that so much of the discussion seems to come down to playing verbal games or making increasingly speculative guesses.  This makes it hard for me to take it seriously.
But what do I myself recognize?  How do I know things?  (And yes, I do know things.  Or at least if I don't, then no discussion is worth while.  You can put all theories of solipsism in this exact same bucket.)  So how does it happen?
I perceive things and learn from them.  This means learning through structured means like reading or listening to arguments but it also means having experiences that teach me on a subconscious level.  The structured means are the most obvious.  I gain knowledge (mainly) through my eyes and ears.  That knowledge is stored inside of me in an imperfect system.  Sometimes I can access that knowledge directly and perfectly, at other times I only get hints of it.  Sometimes I can move from hints to more perfect knowledge but not always.  (I think of this system as akin to an imperfect computer.  This thought makes me wonder if every age sees the knowledge metaphor change.  I wonder what comparison the people of 3000 AD will make?)  Why is it imperfect?  Is it a hardware imperfection?  I have no idea.
The subconscious stuff is still mainly learned, it just happens at a pre-thought level.  For instance, if I step on something in the dark, I quickly pull back regardless of whether it's a stuffed animal or a cat tail.  This doesn't happen because of a logical set of thoughts, the reaction is too fast.  It's near automatic.  Something similar happens when I move to catch a thrown ball.
Sword fighters use the automatic/subconscious knowledge all the time.  A fight happens too quickly for rational thought.  The actions happen in some other way, as if the hand/arm is thinking for itself.  But it isn't all untaught instinct either.  Experience makes for better fighters, as if the hand/arm is learning.  Lots of other skills fall into this exact pattern.  Try to type while concentrating on the letters and see just how much slower you suddenly become.
Are there other types of knowledge?*  Specifically, is there a spiritual knowledge that simply comes to people that are receptive to it?  I'm . . . skeptical.  But I can't really say a big no.  When someone prays and receives an answer, is that knowledge coming from a spiritual source or is it an echo from some part of their brain?  I don't know and I can't think of any way to falsify either part of that in an experiment. 
This is the big barrier to epistemology and psychology in general.  Internal things like a 'thought process' are stubbornly internal.  We can play around on the outsides and bring scientific method to bear in some small ways but the big stuff is outside of our grasp.  I'm not optimistic that we will break thought that barrier anytime soon nor do I particularly feel the lack.
And, I think, that is why I find so much of this to be uninteresting.

*A quick word, if you will about one other spin off.  I think people really do experience forerunners of knowledge at times.  Not reliably and maybe some people have this better than others but I think it's there.  Personally, about once a month, I can predict the next song out of a 2000 song randomized playlist.  It starts in my head before the track changes.  I don't try to do this, but I recognize it when it happens.  I don't know how this fits in with the rest of my thoughts on how we know things other than to say that I think the room for mystery is very, very large here.

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