April 5, 2017

5 04 2017

The heavy snow of April 1st is melting under the assault of yet another rainy day. As I took feed out to the birds, I heard the quacking of ducks. My own, of course, but also quite the fuss coming from a different direction. The mallards have returned to the wetland.

After morning chores I settled down to read a blog by Aron DiBacco. It is nice to come across another person of a philosophical bent who expresses themselves in accessible terms. I drifted away from academic philosophy because of its lofty, insular discourse. What is the use of using specialized scholarly jargon and references to other philosophers and schools of thought that are understandable only to another PhD? It makes sense to do so if one is in the sciences, communicating on sophisticated material to other scientists. But philosophy should be everyone’s business; it deals with ideas any thoughtful, reflective person can understand. Let the academics debate to their hearts’ content in their stratospheric towers. I want to talk to ordinary people.

Back to Aron’s blog. The main part of her article was about unearthing a favorite book of her father’s, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions by Thomas S. Kuhn. Her father had heavily annotated the text in the margins, giving tantalizing clues as to what was going on in his mind. Since he is gone, she can’t ask him what he meant. But she can still learn from him by the way he argues with the author in the margins. (Kuhn’s book might sound too academic to interest most folks, but the ideas can be easily paraphrased so that anyone can understand them. A good teacher would do so.)

Underneath Aron’s writing lurks a discussion of epistemology. WTF is that, one might ask. See, that’s the problem. Philosophy nerds know what that word means, but most people wouldn’t. And yet it’s about something almost everyone wonders about at one time or another: What is knowledge and how do we know it?

My comment on her blog included the following: “Epistemology is perhaps the most fundamental aspect of philosophy, indeed of any serious discourse. We cannot effectively debate the merits of any issue unless there is some agreement on what we know and how we know it. In this era of ‘alternative facts’, it is as if we’ve abandoned the process as futile, and what can be known is a matter of convenience.” In other words, truth has become merely a matter of opinion, and we as a society have thrown out a common understanding of what is real and what is a fact. (Not all of us, fortunately.)

Although it is far from perfect (because it is being done by imperfect human beings), the scientific method is the most successful way for us to know stuff we can all agree on. (Back to epistemology: we can safely say we know something when anybody anywhere can repeat the experiment, or collect the data, and get pretty much the same results.) We’ve been at it long enough that we’ve amassed a vast body of knowledge about the world. Because there is so much we’ve discovered, we need to specialize. Some learn all they can about meteorology, or astronomy, or engineering. Or flying an airplane. We rely on them to do what they do because they know more about it that we do.

Politics is a difficult business. Governing a country like the United States is more complicated than most of us can comprehend. We are a nation of laws, and our representatives must have an understanding of them to govern properly. We live in a world of dizzyingly complex diplomatic, economic, and political relationships. One must take into account history, psychology, culture, geography, and dozens of other factors when dealing with other nations. No single individual can possibly know everything necessary to run things, and thus our leaders must rely on a stable of experts with long experience and deep understanding of their various fields. In other words, experts in government.

And so, like it or not, we need professional, trained politicians. If we don’t like what they are doing, or feel they are out of touch with our needs, we tell them so and demand changes. If they don’t comply, we look for alternative representatives to elect who are more likely to listen. But agreeing with what we want can’t be the sole criterion for voting for someone. It makes as much sense as choosing an electrician because he supports the same sports teams as you, ignoring the fact that he hasn’t had any training beyond high school shop class.

In order to function as a society, we need to agree that facts are objective, knowledge is real, and it is good to have both at one’s disposal. In our spare time we can (and should) keep refining our understanding of what we know and how we know it. Our understanding of what is truth may never be perfect, but the very process teaches us much.

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