I somewhat recently relearned the importance of a lot of work in epistemology (philosophy of knowledge). Sometimes arguing another round about skepticism can feel divorced from the world. But there are in fact plenty of skeptics running around causing trouble. They pose questions about, well pretty much everything, especially including the sources of our knowledge themselves. Now, as I have mentioned, I am not a skeptic, and I think there are plenty of ways to defeat skepticism, but in this post I’d like to dive directly into the epistemic problems.
Trusting People Who Know Things
One of the most common angles of attack for conspiracy theorists is our sources of knowledge. In particular, who we trust to get information from. We do get most of our knowledge via hearing or reading what someone else said. Most science you learn in school is the teacher and the textbook telling you some facts. You don’t look at it for yourself. Religion, too, is filled with relying on other people to know things and pass them on. And the news is literally just people telling you things that you don’t have the time to go see for yourself.
So we clearly rely on other people telling us things. And if you were to rank the ways you come to know things, via sensing them, remembering them, inferring them, hearing them from others, etc., you probably put hearing them from others low on the list. At least in American culture, trusting your own senses, memory, and conclusion-drawing skills before trusting someone else to know seems to be the norm. So when a conspiracy theorist looking to spread his ways points out how much of what we know is based on taking others’ words for it, the realization can be jarring.
So, sure, if you ask about how we know science stuff, or a lot of other stuff, then sure, 99% of us have to take it on people’s word. Experiments are time-consuming and expensive. However, as you might have noticed, we do manage to do stuff. Veering off the question of knowledge for a second, someone at the store could start throwing stuff instead of shopping. People on roads could ignore the lines. And back on the question of knowledge, a news reporter could spontaneously just start saying knowing lies. And in fact, on rare occasion, these things do happen. But usually they don’t. That we manage to make stuff work, even if not with 100% certainty, is interesting in itself. Especially given language and knowledge are both themselves socially-created.
One could dive deep into the social sciences asking what it is that makes people honest, but they are. Sure, some people are dishonest or think they know when they don’t know, but sometimes you think you know when you don’t. Your memories can be wrong even if they feel right. Your senses can deceive you. Faulty reasoning is common. Yet the solution is not to throw these out. It’s to recognize that 100% certainty is not the right bar to use. And just as you realize that totally distrusting your senses isn’t going to work, you should realize that totally distrusting other people isn’t going to work. So how do you judge when someone is to be distrusted? Well, more on that in a bit, but basically, you already know how. When someone has a track record of lying or being wrong, you become suspicious. When someone has a track record of being honest and correct, you trust even some of their more unlikely-sounding statements.
Another popular avenue for conspiracy theorists to start asking how things make sense. Money is just pieces of paper or numbers in a machine. Laws are just words on a page. How do all of these clearly human-made symbols have any power in the world at all? Nothing makes sense!
Well, again, a dive into the social sciences, particularly sociology and social psychology, would be rather instructive. But we can get a lot of mileage out of asking what you mean by “make sense”?
First, let’s look at the usual cases of making sense. It’s a way of describing behavior. Someone walks to work, and that makes sense. Someone puts some merchandise on the checkout counter at the store, and that makes sense. You see someone tapping at her phone, and, again, that makes sense.
Now let’s look at what doesn’t make sense. If you’re walking down the sidewalk and see someone rolling on the ground, that doesn’t make sense. What do we mean by “that doesn’t make sense”? We mean that you can’t explain the behavior. When people do stuff we try to tell a story about it. Preferably some sort of story that guides us in our actions. We need to know which way he is rolling so we don’t collide. We might consider that the rolling man is on fire, and if we make sense of the rolling that way, we’ll be looking out for fire hazards. Maybe he’s going downhill and it’s just for fun. Maybe he’s mentally disturbed. Regardless, we try to piece together a picture of the world. This picture enables us to act.
We can look back to science. Given everything falls, we all include gravity in our pictures . We do this to make sense of things falling. Part of trusting people is making sense of their saying things as an attempt to communicate the information that they are saying.
Let us now go on the offensive. If you just doubt everything, then you won’t get very far. I don’t mean this in some abstract sense, but in a very commonsense way. If you doubt your senses all the time, you won’t have much input about the world. If I want to go make myself a bowl of rice right now, I have to trust my senses are right about the floor, door, bowl, rice, and so on. And as I walk away from the rice cooker, I have to trust my memory of turning it on, lest I end up in an endless cycle of checking it. Oh, and my knowledge that the rice cooker cooks rice. And that rice is a food. The list goes on and on. Could my roommate have poisoned my rice supply? I suppose that is a possibility. But it doesn’t make any sense.
But, again, onto the offensive. These theorists all too often fail to doubt whether they should be doubting. If I’m walking and come to a rickety bridge over a deep chasm, sure, I’ll doubt it. This doubt is expressed by testing it. Step on the bridge with one foot on secure ground. Maybe shake it a bit. But a busy sidewalk? I’m not going to doubt whether it will fall out under me. That would be insane. If someone jumped on each sidewalk square three times to be sure it’s safe, we would say they have severe OCD.
There are many, many things we simply don’t doubt. And we don’t doubt them because we have no reason to doubt them. Doubting everything sounds attractive as a slogan, but it’s wildly impractical. Even someone reading this and objecting probably trusted up until this point that I’m writing in English with words meaning what they usually mean. I would implore someone who didn’t to object, but he didn’t understand what I said anyway and won’t get the message.
So, what’s the point of all this knowledge stuff? Conspiracy theorists point to the different and competing claims of science, reason, faith, religion, and maybe some others. Usually this is for the sake of undermining our understanding of purpose. They are convinced that the people telling us about science or religion or whatever else has an agenda. Those educators want us to do their bidding, and we need to think for ourselves to find the real purpose of action, whatever it may be. So now we can carve up the questions constructed by these theorists into two:
- What is a good source of knowledge?
- What is a good reason to do something?
And we need both in the most general sense. There’s a worry about falling into traps of outright outlandish and foolish doubts. But at the same time we still have to be wary of believing too easily.
Now a dive into epistemology (philosophy of knowledge). There’s (basically) two very general notions of how to think of knowledge and it is justified, so to speak. One way is like towers. You have some basic, ground-level beliefs or knowledge. You build up from there. And if you pull out the bottom, then the whole thing collapses. This is the idea people seem to commonly have going into this discussion. So a conspiracy theorist comes along and makes you question your ground-level beliefs. You have the problem of not knowing which things are good foundations. Because knowing which things are good is itself knowledge!
The other way is more like a web. There are some more or less important parts, but nothing is truly at the bottom. You throw new stuff at it. Some can fit in. Some will be rejected. If you tell me Nixon was just re-elected president, I’ll have some real reservations because other parts of my web do not fit at all with that. Nixon is dead, and the US doesn’t usually have elections in the middle of a term and overnight. But if you told me the rice I started earlier is done, that seems pretty plausible. The best explanation my web can figure for someone telling me that is that my rice is done.
So, let’s assume that the web is the better model. Epistemological foundationalists are free to object in the comments, and actively encouraged to do so if they can also provide the same defense I do here:
As a person in the middle of life, you already have a web. Your web is working well enough. Sometimes you’re wrong, but you get around being correct often enough to not be put in a psychiatric ward for having crippling hallucinations and delusions. Now think about your good enough web. Sometimes you come across new information. Say, you hear a knock at the door. New info. It comes to the web. Using other stuff you know, you figure the knock probably happened, and it probably means that there’s a person there. So you get up and look. And then you answer the door, whatever. Good web.
Now, let’s say it was the wind. So you answer, and nobody is there. That’s more info. So that goes to the web, and you cut out the previous belief that someone was at the door. Maybe you come up with an explanation, such as that it was the wind. This gives us some idea what it is for you to believe or know something. The something that you believe is part of a web that leads you to create new beliefs and act in ways that are useful to you.
Then we have the question of which sources of knowledge are right or trustworthy. So ask, well, why do you trust your ears? Probably because thus far they usually lead you the right way. And today we have convenient examples of stuff leading the wrong way. Lots of people ignore the feeling of vibration on their leg because the phantom phone vibrations lied enough that they cut out of their webs as a good source of info. So, as in the first section, you can ask this of people, too. As I promised, we are returning to the question of how to know who to trust.
Do you know someone who lies a lot? Do you trust what she says? No. Why? Because you’ve found that the things that she says always ends up having to be cut out of the web. Likewise, what is it to trust someone besides to take the information they present as good enough for inclusion in the web? It doesn’t have to be the most strongly connected to the web. If a close friend tells you something important, you’ll probably be very hesitant to cut it out of your web. But if someone at the store tells you chips are in aisle three and you don’t see them, then you assume the dude was wrong and move along. The fact that people can misremember aisle numbers is part of your well-functioning web.
Okay, so individual threats to the web can be handled, but what if you’re worried about your whole web being wrong? What if actually an evil demon is feeding your mind with perceptions that are nothing more than the demon fucking around? What if you’ve been so thoroughly misled, as some of the more extreme conspiracy theorists might contend, that really you need to throw everything out and start over?
First, remember now, what does it mean when you say or think “This is wrong?” It means that the alleged information (“this”) cannot fit into your web. You might not be 100% certain that it shouldn’t, but we’ve established that that’s fine. So something is coming to your web and not sticking because it just doesn’t fit. Then to think “Everything I think is wrong” is to think that your whole web does not fit with your web. This means that the very idea of doubting everything is incoherent. You can check if pieces of the web fit with the rest of the web. You cannot check if the whole web (at once) fits with the rest of the web. There is no “rest of the web” to check against.
Now, of course, the web might still feel a bit loose. But now the way to tighten it and make it feel coherent can be made clearer. Because it’s now clear that each piece can only be tested individually, and that you already have a web, you can look at the more troublesome pieces and explicitly put them to the test. And then like how when you put one foot on a rickety bridge to assure you’re self that it’s safe, you have shaken the belief in question and found that it does hold together.
Putting the Web into Action
There are yet factors that give us good reason to suspect large swaths of web. For instance, your socioeconomic status makes you oblivious to a lot of things. Geography will highlight some things and hide others. And there’s just plain ignorance. I know I don’t know much about botany, so the whole region of my web dealing in plants is kinda shady.
Nonetheless, there are parts of the web that come up because we have to act, and maybe we have to believe. But we don’t have to believe very strongly. So, for example, I’ve been made aware, through various means, that I have obviously white skin and features, and as such, there are important things that I’m just going to miss. I can’t know what it’s like to be black. I know that, though, so that goes in the web. And when something looks like it wants to be part of my web when I know it should not (because it’s something I know that I can’t know), then the web rejects it.
Now, are there probably some deeply wrong parts of the web? That is, parts that will not stand up to scrutiny? Well, maybe. But there are at least two kinds:
- Something that will affect my actions in an important way.
- Something that will not affect my actions in an important way.
The whole reason for caring about this stuff is because of actions, right? Knowing for knowing’s sake is dandy, but the reason we get really worried is because of the beliefs that affect how we act. So toss out category 2.
This leaves category 1. Given the values you have and situations you’re likely to encounter, you can look around the beliefs in the relevant areas of your web and test them. Maybe you know you need more info, so you can find some to help build up that area of the web. Many situations that some knowledge will be useful for can be foreseen. Of course, sometimes you can’t or won’t, and actions have consequences. That’s a large part of why we care about them. If there’s bad consequences, then that goes to the web, and you can figure out what went wrong. You learn from mistakes and whatnot.
So then maybe a new worry comes up: What if you make a really bad mistake?
Well, you already know what counts as really bad, right? Maybe the kinda bad stuff is fuzzy, but the really bad stuff is clear. And being really bad, you can reasonably make general rules of action that steer you clear of it. Like, killing the wrong person would be really bad, so you make a general rule to not kill anyone.