Wednesday, July 26, 2017

--- Notes on knowledge ---

Thus the faculties of consciousness, of memory, of external sense, and of reason are all equally the gifts of nature. No good reason can be assigned for receiving the testimony of one of them, which is not of equal force with regard to the others.

Thomas Reid

There is a huge difference between Descartes' epistemology and our epistemology. A lot of our epistemology has drifted from philosophy to science - cognitive science. And science has worked out techniques for research that reduce uncertainty and bridges the gap between what we perceive and what is actually "out there".

Some still are suspicious of "faculties of consciousness" like intuition, emotion, and aesthetic judgment but these abilities developed with our race to take care of situations important to our survival and they are as important today as they ever were. We are often called to make "snap judgments" in situations where there is no time for long deliberation and many of our cognitive abilities are there for those situations.

But it is, nevertheless, important that our "faculties of consciousness" and, also our more respected faculties be trained to work well and to work together. Intuition, for instance, with attention and collaboration with reason can be fine tuned to be an effective and reliable tool for assessing situations that are "fuzzy", open to multiple interpretations, or that require a quick, cool summation.

I still run into people who think that memory is like a video recording in which everything that we've done or perceived is stored in our brains (if only we could get to the recordings). That idea has been disproved over and over by cognitive scientists who know that memories are reconstructions from very summary clues stored in our brains. We reconstruct situations every time we remember them and there is much room for error. But the same cognitive scientists have discovered and developed techniques that help us to reduce that error greatly. Rehearsing memories, associating new memories with salient information, and the use of memory systems greatly empower us to remember accurately and reliably.

At the same time replication, triangulation, and good research design allow scientists to certify that the results of their research actually resembles reality enough to understand and predict the workings of nature.

Nevertheless, we should be careful about "what we know". A little humility is called for because we are still once removed from the world. What we perceive will always be processed through our senses and our brain before we consciously apprehend our world. We will always be stuck with mental models of the way things work but, as long as we keep firmly in mind that they are models, that will be good enough.

No, I don't think we can know with absolute certainty what's really "out there", but we can have a consistent and reliable view of how our world works. If it's not "absolute reality", it's our world. We can't go beyond that - or can we.

The major problem is that we are incapable of directly perceiving the universe. Our sensory organs are limited and our brains are material organs that are limited in their programming to certain patterns. They are linear and time bound. Most of the universe, we can't even grasp, but we know that there are things beyond what we can grasp. What we know - our models - require other things. A physicist told me that the universe isn't made of matter - it's made of fields. We can't perceive fields, but they have to be there or else nothing we know would work.

I've had experiences that my brain can't grasp. That's part of shamanism, and there's another way we can go beyond. We're approaching a time when we can construct artificial intelligences that work qualitatively different from our material brains. They can think things that we can't. Can they open up new areas of the universe for us? I guess the question is, "Do we want them to?"

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