Notes To A Young Scholar

True Knowledge Requires Both Consensus and Disagreement.

Hi Maya,

It was lovely to see you last night and blurt at you about a really interesting question. I particularly enjoyed being laughed at by three amazing women whom I love.

I deserved to be mocked, however: in the middle of the night I realised, to my horror, that I had confused epistemology-the theory of knowledge- with ontology, which is the theory of existence. For me, that is just a fairly normal embarrassment, but I wouldn’t want you making that mistake in an essay. I’m sure you would have checked it anyway, but I wanted to make sure I’d corrected myself.

Despite the fact that my drunken ramble caused Amanda, Charlotte and Pas to unite in what I hope was loving mockery of me, I am pretty happy with where we were going with your essay question. The whole issue of true knowledge is not a fixed one: what we know, beyond pure abstractions like maths equations, is not settled. Knowledge is justified true belief: there is always an element of belief (i.e., personal perspective) within any known ‘fact’ about the world.

That is why I was objecting to the term you used in your otherwise solid definition of knowledge: ‘beyond reasonable doubt’. In law, it provides a threshold for decision-making by a jury, but based upon a lot of assumptions: that the jury members are reasonable and honest; that the rules of the legal debate are just; that the judge is a person above the partiality of human prejudice, etc. In the context of your question, the word ‘reasonable’ becomes another doubtful element, and the phrase is rather like a dismissal. It’s worth noting, as well, that the court is a mechanism of power, and that its language, such as that phrase, is designed to provide justification for the imposition of power by one set of humans upon another. This idea, of an excuse for the exercise of power, is one definition of ideology, about which I want to ramble further in a minute.

Initially, I rather took against the essay question. I was drunk and enjoying showing off. In fact, in the clear light of day, I think I agree with its assertion, about the wisdom of consensus and disagreement balancing one another, even if the premise of true knowledge is problematic. I am pleased with my example of a person who believes something that no one else believes. It is just possible that that singular visionary has access to a universal truth to which the rest of humanity is blinded: it is more likely that he or she is barking. I believe very firmly that a crucial key to our human nature is that we are social animals: we are nothing without one another. A successful human is one who is able to get on with other humans and to learn from their interactions. The lone wolf as hero is a fascist lie.

On the other hand, I think that a key lesson of human history is the danger of unexamined consensus. As a consequence of our social nature, we have a regressive instinct for mob behaviour. Indeed, a turning point for capitalist hegemony was the understanding of how to harness this instinct: the absorption of Freud’s theories about subconscious impulses into the ‘science’ of Public Relations. A recent example of this might be the use of a set of lies to persuade people that Brexit was a rational choice. It was not asking them to go entirely against their will: many, many people resented British membership of the European Union on a visceral, sometimes unexamined level, but the creation of the ‘truth’ about the £350 million that would be freed up for the NHS was a manipulation of consensus, as were the dog-whistle asides about ‘uncontrolled’ immigration. However much informed people reiterated that these were lies, the lies lived as believed truth.

I’ll try to tell you why I think that the belief element (the partial, subjective element) is the most important part of any definition of knowledge, but I won’t put it in purely philosophical terms since my credentials as a philosopher are actually minimal. I took two years of philosophy, as part of a portfolio degree lasting four years. At the same time as I studied philosophy, I took classes in literature and history of art (in first year) and history and literary theory in second year. In third year I chose my honours subject, Cultural History, which is, as I see it, the history of values and ideologies. I moved away from philosophy mainly because I felt that it was, at least in the ‘modern’ (post-cartesian, European philosophy from the 17th century) form, barren and disastrous.

So, I tend to see questions like this in terms of the historical movement of ideas. I believe that, today, we are almost beyond philosophy. The pretence that our culture, however you want to define that in a rapidly globalising human community, is led by thought rather than by restless, purposeless activity, is pretty threadbare at the moment. On the whole, I think that will probably come to be seen by historians of the future as a good development, if we survive. Anything has to be better than the results of the certainties that marked the beginning of the last century and the psychotic collapse to which they led.

Part of the shock to Western culture of the twentieth century was the understanding that the great edifice of ‘knowledge’ it was building was not, in fact, founded on certainty. There had been a faith that the old, ‘illusory’ certainty of religious faith would one day be replaced by true scientific certainty, when we would know, for sure, everything’s place in the universe and, particularly, our place within it. Progress, it was felt, was not simply putting trousers on Africans, stealing their homes, labour and resources and building bigger guns with which to assert our dominance over them: it had an underlying moral direction, towards a point of future human perfection. Some right-wing historians still see the crimes of western imperialism as justified in the light of western ‘progress’ (see Max Hastings or Niall Ferguson on colonialism, although I believe Ferguson has since backtracked to an extent on this question). In histories, Christianity tends to get the blame for all this, but in my view it was peripheral and cosmetic. Commerce was the driver of colonialism: commerce and raw power were the ideological urges which western philosophy spent three centuries trying to justify, until it hit the buffers in the mid twentieth century.

The cultural effect of new discoveries in cosmology, combined with the moral devastation wrought by the collapse of the Pax-Europa, culminating in the crimes of the nazis and the invention of the atomic bomb, was to make western philosophy withdraw in on itself. You have, perhaps, heard of ‘post-modernism‘. It, like many of the main philosophical movements of the mid and late twentieth century, such as existentialism and its twin, (a revival of an idea as old as thought) nihilism, were really despairing responses to the material ruin created by the sterile cleverness of three hundred years of European thought. The death blow to the west’s confidence, in truth, was probably Einstein’s publication of his theories of relativity, which tell us that neither our position in the universe, or our place in time, are fixed.

So, so much for philosophy. What about science?

Scientific thought is the dominant ideology of modern culture and it claims to be rooted in freedom from error, in a way no ideology has done since the early mediaeval church. I am not anti-science (whatever that stupid buzz-word means): in fact, I have just begun an Open University science course because I have always regretted my lack of knowledge of scientific thought. However, I am very sceptical about the uses to which science is put, from the cartoon molecules on Loreal adverts to the justification (now, thankfully under severe economic and scientific pressure) for the development of nuclear power stations.

The reason I call science an ideology is because science is a system of thought that seeks to explain all that is. Its power is that it is rigorous about what it accepts as true. This definition is from an online dictionary and I found it via Wikipedia: any web search will yield a wealth of explanation:

A method of procedure that has characterized natural science since the 17th century, consisting in systematic observation, measurement, and experiment, and the formulation, testing, and modification of hypotheses.

‘criticism is the backbone of the scientific method’

However, it is a human creation: it is prone to human errors. Its observations are defined by what is chosen to be observed. One of the most interesting learning processes of my university career was researching an essay on the history of racial science in the nineteenth century. Nowadays, any scientific apologist will simply deride that grim history as ‘bad science’, and so it was, but it wasn’t recognised as such at the time. Indeed, assumptions embedded within it survived to be employed as justifications by the nazis in the twentieth century and resurface regularly: there was an odious book published while I was at university called ‘The Bell Curve’, which attempted to define comparative intelligence between races. It achieved a measure of fatuous influence: I heard of it because a student referenced it in an essay when I was a graduate tutor.

The issue of science being human and therefore subject to human failings is not an inherent flaw in scientific thought, although a number of thinkers in the late 1980s felt that such a flaw existed, (see writers such as Morris Berman and Stephen Toulmin, who questioned western confidence as part of the New Age movement) which is why I went off on my tangent about Descartes last night, but I’ll leave that for now. The key point, I think, is that any body of opinion that establishes authority (the ability to dictate the truth about something) will lead to the creation of hierarchies, whether they be priesthoods, military rankings or science funding institutes. A unique cultural theorist named Michel Foucault wrote extensively about how institutions use knowledge to create power. For a university, or a professional body that regulates medicine, or engineering or drug research, power is rooted in who defines truth.

That is why I think disagreement is very important. I really think it is vital that some people do not follow the herd. Ten years ago, atheism was a hot trend: no internet forum was complete without some ill-informed and often coded-racist rant against ‘irrationality’. Fortunately, many religious people simply rode out the storm, arguing for their right to follow an instinctive, deeply culturally embedded method of relating to the world, and I sense that some balance has been restored to that ‘debate’ now, although it lingers in extreme racist politics, including among members of our current government.

All this is not to say that truth does not matter. The alt-right has latched on to a perversion of postmodernism which claims that ‘my truth is equal to your truth’. This is an excuse for lies. At this point, some rational discipline can help. Scientific method is not always relevant to human affairs; social science has a very chequered history of making outrageous assumptions about people and groups of people, often with disastrous results. However, the history of attempting to establish truth through discussion and examination of evidence which is exposed to critical methods predates modern scientific method by thousands of years. Socratic argument is worth a quick Wikipedia search. The best example in modern culture of an area in which the debate about why truth matters is prominent is the subject of climate change. I recommend the Guardian columnist George Monbiot for a body of excellent work on that topic and on how rational consensus can overcome the desire to distort reality with lies.

I’m sure you can think of other examples of mass consensus distorting perception. In my teens, it was still quite acceptable to regard homosexual behaviour as unnatural, even among people who believed that it was right and proper to tolerate it. It was rooted in a confused belief that science had somehow established this ‘fact’. The majority of people questioned about human diet will say that humans are omnivorous and many will say that we are carnivores: neither opinion is true, but they are accepted as fact, even by educated people, because they underpin social norms.

Please excuse me mansplaining, but I don’t often get to meet a bright young person who is taking study seriously and it is very exciting. I have not followed an academic path: my work life has been mostly in the pursuit of a living, rather than knowledge. I am certainly not trying to write your essay for you: that would be a disaster. I am sure you can do a better job than I could. I just wanted to send you some notes, because you were kind enough to ask my opinion.

However, you would be wise to treat what I have written as extremely partial (in the sense of prejudiced) and not, in any way, authoritative. Write your own essay and assume that I am talking out of my neck, showing off for my own amusement.

Best wishes,