The Ethics of True Knowledge


This post will probably be a mess. I listen to lots of podcasts while running and exercising. There was a strange confluence of topics that seemed to hit all at once from several unrelated places. Sam Harris interviewed Neil deGrasse Tyson, and they talked a little about recognizing alien intelligence and the rabbit hole of postmodernist interpretations of knowledge (more on this later). Daniel Kaufman talked with Massimo Pigliucci about philosophy of math.

We’ll start with a fundamental fact that must be acknowledged: we’ve actually figured some things out. In other words, knowledge is possible. Maybe there are some really, really, really minor details that aren’t quite right, but the fact that you are reading this blog post on a fancy computer is proof that we aren’t just wandering aimlessly in the dark when it comes to the circuitry of a computer. Science has succeeded in many places, and it remains the only reliable way to generate knowledge at this point in human history.

Skepticism is the backbone of science, but there is a postmodernist rabbit hole one can get sucked into by taking it too far. I won’t make the standard rebuttals to radical skepticism, but instead I’ll make an appeal to ethics. I’ve written about this many times, two of which are here and here. It is basically a variation on Clifford’s paper The Ethics of Belief.

The short form is that good people will do good things if they have good information, but good people will often do bad things unintentionally if they have bad information. Thus it is an ethical imperative to always strive for truth and knowledge.

I’ll illuminate what I mean with an example. The anti-vaccine people have their hearts in the right place. They don’t intend to cause harm. They actually think that vaccines are harmful, so it is the bad information causing them act unethically. I picked this example, because it exemplifies the main problem I wanted to get to.

It is actually very difficult to criticize their arguments in general terms. They are skeptical of the science for reasons that are usually good. They claim big corporations stand to lose a lot of money, so they are covering up the truth. Typically, this is one of the times it is good to question the science, because there are actual examples where money has led to bad science in the past. Since I already mentioned Neil deGrasse Tyson, I’ll quote him for how to think about this.

“A skeptic will question claims, then embrace the evidence. A denier will question claims, then deny the evidence.”

This type of thing can be scary when we, as non-experts, still have to figure out what is true or risk unintentional harm in less clear-cut examples. No one has time to examine all of the evidence for every issue to figure out what to embrace. So we have to rely on experts to tell us what the evidence says. But then the skeptic chimes in and says, but an appeal to authority is a logical fallacy and those experts are paid by people that cause a conflict of interest.

Ah! What is one to do? My answer is to go back to our starting point. Science actually works for discovering knowledge. Deferring to scientific consensus on issues is the ethically responsible thing to do. If they are wrong, it is almost certainly going to be an expert within the field that finds the errors and corrects them. It is highly unlikely that some Hollywood actor has discovered a giant conspiracy and also has the time and training to debunk the scientific papers that go against them.

Science has been wrong; anything is possible, but one must go with what is probable.

I said this post would be a mess and brought up philosophy of math at the start, so how does that have anything to do with what I just wrote? Maybe nothing, but it’s connected in my mind in a vague way.

Some people think mathematical objects are inherent in nature. They “actually exist” in some sense. This is called Platonism. Other people think math is just an arbitrary game where we manipulate symbols according to rules we’ve made up. I tend to take the embodied mind philosophy of math as developed by Lakoff and Nunez.

They claim that mathematics itself is purely a construct of our embodied minds, but it isn’t an “arbitrary” set of rules like chess. We’ve struck upon axioms (Peano or otherwise) and logic that correspond to how we perceive the world. This is why it is useful in the real world.

To put it more bluntly: Aliens, whose embodied experience of the world might be entirely different, might strike upon an entirely different mathematics that we might not even recognize as such but be equally effective at describing the world as they perceive it. Therefore, math is not mind independent or even universal among all intelligent minds, but is still useful.

To tie this back to the original point, I was wondering if we would even recognize aliens as intelligent if their way of expressing it was so different from our own that their math couldn’t even be recognized as such to us. Would they be able to express true knowledge that was inaccessible to us? What does this mean in relation to the ethics of belief?

Anyway, I’m thinking about making this a series on the blog. Maybe I’ll call it RRR: Random Running Ramblings, where I post random questions that occur to me while listening to something while running.

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2 thoughts on “The Ethics of True Knowledge

  1. Hi. A side question (not directly about the heart of your point).
    Your example of aliens makes me wonder (and I have to say that I haven’t put into it much thought though): since our cosmological knowledge of the Universe is, to some extent, tied to our mathematics (here I am mainly thinking about recent physical observations predicted by theory decades ago), would your hypothetical aliens perceive the same cosmological phenomena differently than we do, if their mathematics differs much from ours? Or would it be simply that, though different, their mathematics would nonetheless make the same predictions about the Universe?
    Having written the questions above, I realize that it is underpinned by the platonic ontology of mathematics I adhere to, and that you can simply say that (and you did above) our mathematics is a product of our perceptions. Aliens, perceiving differently, produce different mathematics but come to the same physical predictions as we do.

  2. That seems plausible. This is part of the problem of “embodied mind” philosophy. Since we can’t even imagine what a different physiological experience of the universe would be (what if they’re not even carbon-based? or they somehow experience the six curled-up spatial dimensions predicted in string theory?), it’s hard to say if they’d even see the same phenomena to make those predictions.

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