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What Do You Know?
Posted: 22 April 2005 12:44 PM   [ Ignore ]  
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Ordinary, in a recent thread, reminded me that I've been meaning to start an examination of "what we know." First, though, some introduction seems in order.

A primary factor in human understanding is how knowledge gets phrased. Linguistic consistency allows for astounding variety. For instance, Twentieth-Century psychology could be said to have been constructed largely (though not completely) by Freud and Skinner. Their positions represent opposite poles in a partial understanding of neurological function. Both systems of analysis—the words of Freud and Skinner—are justifiable descriptions within each of their individual contexts. Freud, in one sense, represents free will, even though he was anti-religion. Skinner represents autonomic reaction, though he resided and thrived in human society, which is cluttered with interior motives and activities. The dichotomy can be seen as polar renderings of human existence. Freud argued—with enormously inventive vocabulary—for cognitivism; Skinner argued with equal force and skill for the dominance of bodily reaction in humans and all animals. Both sides were seriously flawed, in my opinion, but the language that described each was virtually perfect.

So to sum up my introduction—knowledge, understanding and in fact science itself seems to me entirely dependent on the linguistic ability of framers of theory.

Natural phenomena can be understood in many different ways. In my overly simple way of looking at things, I address the concept of "understanding" by way of three general approaches.

1. Capturing human "use," which includes utility and life-enhancement such as comfort and enjoyment;

2. Predictive mastery, including classification;

3. Manipulation—including being able to replicate a phenomenon artificially.

Number 3 is, of course, the most thorough brand of understanding, and the rarest. Actually, on a subatomic level, Number 3’s style of understanding has yet to be accomplished. Numbers 1 and 2 are generally the most sought after, because they tend to be the most practical. They also tend to overlap, in the sense that success in one often contributes toward accomplishment in the other. Historically, Numbers 1 and 2 have been sought almost to the exclusion of Number 3. White lab coats were not in fashion a thousand years ago, although plenty of ancient precedents to the modern scientific laboratory are known about. Ancient Egyptians, for example, were ardent anatomists, since their unusual religious beliefs allowed them to dissect and study human corpses.

Elaborating just a bit on my admittedly cryptic descriptions of the first and second brands of understanding: Number 1 involves visceral use—aligning something with our bone, muscle, nerve and other tissues. My understanding of the chemistry of food cooking is controlled by my feelings of hunger, especially including my senses of smell, taste, and touch. My belly tells me how to cook, though of course the lessons it provides me have come by way of extensive trial-and-error experimentation. Most of what I know about cooking was handed down to me from past such experiments by others, along with a bit of creativity on my part. Lots of human understanding can be seen in ways that are parallel to the mastery of cooking.

Number 2’s understanding amounts to identifying and labeling constituent parts of natural phenomena. Once the parts are labeled, we can then compare them with constituent parts of other, related or unrelated phenomena that have been similarly analyzed. We then do our best to figure out as much as we can about why things work the way they do, as they interact with natural forces such as gravity, magnetism, heat energy, etc.

It may seem that understanding according to Numbers 1 and 2, as they pertain to a given natural phenomenon, amounts to an ultimate kind of knowledge. But we’re easily deceived into assuming ultimate understanding when we’ve accomplished only partial mastery. For example: a phenomenon such as cloud formation. The field of meteorology has truly come a long way. Staggeringly detailed analysis, including use of highly sophisticated computer models, allows scientists to feel confident in their understanding of every type of cloud that can be found. But thorough understanding of cloud formation actually includes equally thorough understanding of many other phenomena.

Comments? (Both negative and positive ones are welcomed)    -Dave

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Posted: 22 April 2005 01:33 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]  
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Who,....what…...huh??????

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Posted: 22 April 2005 01:54 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 2 ]  
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Dave (tyhts),

This is intriguing.  Just stoped by science to see if any new developments were on tap and found this thread.

Actually, I might be able to get g interested in this since this is right up his alley.  He has been working on a resolution of knowledge representation in brain tissue (I think its actually what he calls concept representation) and the sense of “understanding”.  I’ll let him know you posted this.

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Posted: 22 April 2005 03:15 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 3 ]  
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Just giving you a hard time. Great post, very in depth, if I might add.

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Posted: 23 April 2005 01:30 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 4 ]  
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3. Manipulation—including being able to replicate a phenomenon artificially.

Very thought provocative (even for the linguistically challenged). 1 and 2 do seem to be the most sought after. In Champs case he performs #1 and #2 in the bathroom very well, but to embark on #3 would simply be incomprehensible. Just how much toilet paper would that require?

Kidding aside, I think language is a key factor in knowledge and understanding. I also think the reason that #3 is the least attainable is because it would generally require massive one shot amounts of either: energy (to manipulate clouds), money (for R&D and resources).

I’m sure there are more reasons for the halt of knowledge pursuance. (I’m trying to think of other things that we have a vast knowledge of but don’t manipulate). I’m wondering if a large part is based on a consensus that we shouldn’t f**k with natural phenomena by trying to manipulate it. ie. causing the eruption of a volcano.

Just a question: Has science been able to revive a deal cell? Or even better, create a cell and give life to it?

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Posted: 23 April 2005 03:58 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 5 ]  
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sorry… a “dead” cell

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Posted: 23 April 2005 01:00 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 6 ]  
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[quote author=“tyhts”]—knowledge, understanding and in fact science itself seems to me entirely dependent on the linguistic ability of framers of theory.


I think you should perhaps qualify this statement as pertaining to academic or intellectual/scientific pursuit of knowledge and understanding.  There is a vast area of knowledge of natural phenomena that consists of observation and intuitive understanding, without necessarily capturing human use or mastery, much less manipulation.  Modern knowledge and science are relatively new in the context of human understanding.  Mankind developed many forms of personal knowledge long before the ascent of language.  Animals develop some extent of knowledge and understanding of the world around them, without language, at least as we perceive it.  Even animals incorporate #1 and #2. 

Of course, we have cognitive abilities to understand much on a personal level without need of linguistics, but the ability to share knowledge in the form of theory and ideas and perceptions does normally require a common language.  That astounding variety of linguistic interpretation is a double edged sword.  It can both impede an advancement of understanding, and at the same time, causes us to have these discussions where every participant gains deeper insight by being forced to define linguistics and interpretation on a ever increasing level of common understanding.

So I am asking, Dave, do you wish to explore knowledge and understanding as pertaining to the general intellectual development of science in our world, or do you wish to explore knowledge and understanding as an overall subject of the cognizance of the human brain, or are you seeking to explore the potential of developing that partial mastery of #1 and #2 into a more complete ultimate knowledge of #3?

Maggie

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Posted: 23 April 2005 02:35 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 7 ]  
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Dave:

. . . knowledge, understanding and in fact science itself seems to me entirely dependent on the linguistic ability of framers of theory.

Maggie:

I think you should perhaps qualify this statement as pertaining to academic or intellectual/scientific pursuit of knowledge and understanding. There is a vast area of knowledge of natural phenomena that consists of observation and intuitive understanding, without necessarily capturing human use or mastery, much less manipulation.

I knew I’d come to the right place—thanks for clarifying this point. I will rework my 3 approaches to reflect it. I strongly suspect that ants, for instance, don’t utilize any words when they farm-ranch other, littler critters. They obviously have their own methods of communication, which would made a fascinating book: Ant Epistemology.

So I am asking, Dave, do you wish to explore knowledge and understanding as pertaining to the general intellectual development of science in our world, or do you wish to explore knowledge and understanding as an overall subject of the cognizance of the human brain, or are you seeking to explore the potential of developing that partial mastery of #1 and #2 into a more complete ultimate knowledge of #3?

What interests me (for what it’s worth to anyone else) is theory. And if you or anyone has something to say about developing that partial mastery of #1 and #2 into a more complete ultimate knowledge of #3, I will gladly read it and attempt to integrate what you say into my own views.

Thanks again, Maggie   -Dave

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Posted: 23 April 2005 03:45 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 8 ]  
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[quote author=“Ed”]Dave (tyhts),

This is intriguing.  Just stoped by science to see if any new developments were on tap and found this thread.

Actually, I might be able to get g interested in this since this is right up his alley.  He has been working on a resolution of knowledge representation in brain tissue (I think its actually what he calls concept representation) and the sense of “understanding”.  I’ll let him know you posted this.

Ed, thanks for your confidence or at least your assurance. I must admit that I’m not sure where exactly the connection is that you mention above. Is it my introduction, or my 3 approaches?

My question may soon become moot, however, because I just ordered Claude Shannon’s Mathematical Theory of Communication. While it’s possible that I’ll be able to understand Shannon—if not, I have a friend who knows about him and will help me.

Thanks much -Dave

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Posted: 24 April 2005 06:55 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 9 ]  
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Dave,

I’ve been swimming around in these thoughts of yours for a while.  I feel I understand what you are saying, but I just don’t seem to get where you want to go with them.  My first impression was a little confused, so I felt challenged enough to try to figure it out.  I’m not at all qualified to discuss scientific theory, but I have a curious nature, so help me out here.

It may seem that understanding according to Numbers 1 and 2, as they pertain to a given natural phenomenon, amounts to an ultimate kind of knowledge.  Number 3 is, of course, the most thorough brand of understanding, and the rarest.  Numbers 1 and 2 are generally the most sought after, because they tend to be the most practical. They also tend to overlap, in the sense that success in one often contributes toward accomplishment in the other. Historically, Numbers 1 and 2 have been sought almost to the exclusion of Number 3.

OK… I’m following you on numbers 1, 2, and 3.  And I think number 3 is understandably the rarest. Historically, mastery of knowledge for practical needs has of necessity outweighed manipulation.  If natural phenomena can be mastered in order to capture and retain use, most people tend to be satisfied with that accomplishment.  It is in a sense a matter of supply and demand, and with the demand met, the question of manipulation falls to those who seek knowledge beyond the application of current common practical use.

But thorough understanding of cloud formation actually includes equally thorough understanding of many other phenomena.

This concept would be the difficulty in pursuing number 3.  To truly manipulate natural phenomena of this type, we would have to have a thorough understanding of the interconnectedness of nature, and be able to replicate not only numerous contributing phenomena, but understand the nature of each, including nuance and various patterns that may combine in either predetermined or random sequence.  You’re getting into a depth here requiring time and resources that tend to exclude practical application at a time when human survival is still reliant on development of practical applicable use systems. 

Manipulation, once achieved, might be a far superior method (or not), but must rely on the foundation of numbers 1 and 2, and then find the resources to proceed.  So, doesn’t our pursuit of manipulation become a question of priorities (supply) based on need (demand)?

I know I’ve probably taken an entirely different course from where you were leading, but my thoughts sometimes follow their own path.  smile

Maggie

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Posted: 24 April 2005 07:04 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 10 ]  
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I strongly suspect that ants, for instance, don’t utilize any words when they farm-ranch other, littler critters. They obviously have their own methods of communication, which would made a fascinating book: Ant Epistemology.

LOL, charming coincidence, Dave.  While writing my original reply and commenting on the intelligence of animals, ants were the very critters I had in mind.  Have you watched a column of tiny ants in a barren landscape?  I’m thinking of a column with random spacing between the ants, and not a continuous line.  They scurry about in a rather helter skelter fashion, but remaining within the parameters of the column.  As each meets another ant traveling in the opposite direction, they physically connect, seeming to oh-so-briefly “touch noses”.  I wonder how much and what type of information is contained in these tiny packets of info?

This type of observation and speculative inquiry is much more satisfying to my mind than questions of mathematical theory.  I can’t help you much there, but perhaps gman and Ed will check in with some ideas.

Maggie

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Posted: 24 April 2005 07:31 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 11 ]  
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Maggie, your comments are most interesting. I can see how animal communication theory can grab people’s attention. I suspect plenty of members here would appreciate such a discussion, whether on this thread or a new one within the Science forum. I’m not qualified to take much of a part in it, but would certainly read every entry.

My little 3-point analysis was my attempt to boil things down. Many millions of words have been written about what we know and how confident we can rightfully be, regarding what we know or assume we know. Historically, questions of epistemology have been considered some of the most important in all of philosophy. I like to write about other philosophical topics, such as aesthetics, ethics, and metaphysics, but SamHarris.org doesn’t contain forum categories for these. Epistemology, on the other hand, seems to fit into the Science forum.

So where I’m going with these questions is simply to try to reflect recent cognitive and other discoveries into a historically crucial field of study that, unfortunately, over the centuries somehow got cluttered with excess. My little analysis could be seen as having come, perhaps, from a person with severe autism, which is a perspective I sometimes find useful to attempt when I’m analyzing things that historically have managed to become littered with now useless trappings (for instance, religion). I feel that my analysis has plenty of room to grow, however.

Consider it a friendly invitation   -Dave.

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Posted: 24 April 2005 06:11 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 12 ]  
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Maggie:

Manipulation, once achieved, might be a far superior method (or not), but must rely on the foundation of numbers 1 and 2, and then find the resources to proceed. So, doesn’t our pursuit of manipulation become a question of priorities (supply) based on need (demand)?

Yes, and that’s expensive, as with the multi-billion dollar supercollider project in Texas that got axed about 15 years ago. An underlying point of mine is that people tend to see scientific accomplishment almost as being absolute in its completeness. But ultimate kinds of understanding are quite rare, or maybe even nonexistent. We know quite a bit, yet we know very little.

Shopenhauer speaks about how little the scientists of his day really understood about their fields of study. This certainly applies to today’s scientists as well. Ask a dozen physicists what electricity is, and you’ll probably get a dozen different theories. What scientists thoroughly understand are the shortcuts that previous great theorists—our heritage of geniuses—have figured out for future generations of comparative dummies to toy with and benefit from. After all, most scientists are experts at manipulating data in formulas that have been previously worked out.

To forum scientists, I apologize for my rudeness. I’m hoping that it will urge you to comment further on this subject.

Dave

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Posted: 25 April 2005 07:35 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 13 ]  
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[quote author=“tyhts”] An underlying point of mine is that people tend to see scientific accomplishment almost as being absolute in its completeness. But ultimate kinds of understanding are quite rare, or maybe even nonexistent. We know quite a bit, yet we know very little.

Shopenhauer speaks about how little the scientists of his day really understood about their fields of study. This certainly applies to today’s scientists as well. Ask a dozen physicists what electricity is, and you’ll probably get a dozen different theories. What scientists thoroughly understand are the shortcuts that previous great theorists—our heritage of geniuses—have figured out for future generations of comparative dummies to toy with and benefit from. After all, most scientists are experts at manipulating data in formulas that have been previously worked out.

To forum scientists, I apologize for my rudeness. I’m hoping that it will urge you to comment further on this subject.

Dave

I might qualify as a “forum scientist”.  This seems a bit extreme to me.  My first question is: which people view scientific accomplishments this way? Surely you are not refering to scientists themselves.

Second question: What exactly do you mean by “ultimate kinds of understanding”?  I saw your list of progressively effective understanding, which I thought was quite reasonable as a model of what it means to understand phenomena.  But I don’t get that number 3 on that list is in some sense ultimate.  Replication is only part of the game.  What about modification with purpose.  Are you familiar with the work on artificial life going on today?  What about genetic engineering?  These would seem to go beyond mere replication.

Your characterization of scientists of today is hypercritical without a good example.  Can you say definitively that a dozen physicists will produce a dozen theories of electricity?  In the field of science it is best to have some solid evidence before leveling critical analysis.

I certainly would hope scientists are good at using formulae correctly.  This, of course, requires that they “understand” when the formulae apply!

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Posted: 25 April 2005 08:43 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 14 ]  
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Guest, I overstated my point, and I apologize. But most Ph.D. degrees within the sciences no longer confer much of a knowledge of philosphy, for good reason—previous theorists have already done the philosphical work that once was lacking. What’s needed now is to apply what has been discovered.

As the branches of science continue to develop, individual scientists will continue to specialize. It seems to me that this can tend toward practitioners who ignore the philosophical structures that underlie their work. I hope I’m mistaken.

Dave

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Posted: 25 April 2005 02:03 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 15 ]  
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An underlying point of mine is that people tend to see scientific accomplishment almost as being absolute in its completeness.

A friend of mine has a favorite saying about “just how average the average person is”.  I assume that you are referring to that sort of mentality here.  One reason many people see scientific accomplishment this way is a matter of presentation.  That average person isn’t aware of scientific methods or development of theory.  Accomplishments are presented to them as implied absolutes, by anything from popular media to school textbooks.  (That could create a discussion in itself.)

But ultimate kinds of understanding are quite rare, or maybe even nonexistent. We know quite a bit, yet we know very little.

As we agreed already, ultimate understanding takes time and signigicant resources.  In the overall scheme of things, we do know very little, but just look at the things we have learned and the time period involved.  I remember being told in the seventies that knowledge in the world doubles every ten years, with a continually increasing rate.  If anyone doesn’t realize the advances in knowledge made in the past fifty years alone, they aren’t paying attention.  How much we know depends quite a bit on perspective.

Shopenhauer speaks about how little the scientists of his day really understood about their fields of study. This certainly applies to today’s scientists as well.

Certainly, but isn’t that the nature of our journey?  An elephant really can’t be eaten but one bite at a time.  Once again, a matter of perspective.

Ask a dozen physicists what electricity is, and you’ll probably get a dozen different theories.

Great!  That means scientists, unlike the average man, do fail to see absolutes.

What scientists thoroughly understand are the shortcuts that previous great theorists—our heritage of geniuses—have figured out for future generations of comparative dummies to toy with and benefit from. After all, most scientists are experts at manipulating data in formulas that have been previously worked out.

Yes, we have a heritage of geniuses, but we also have future ones.  Shouldn’t that expertise at manipulating data enable them to spend their time and resources advancing those theories and developing new ones?  Comparative dummies?  Perhaps you are giving too much credit to previous great theorists.  How many of these geniuses did not have both prior theory and the work of their contemporaries to advance their discoveries?  How many of them did not stand either on the shoulders of others or shoulder-to-shoulder with peers?  Even Einstein depended heavily on his wife’s knowledge.  Some biographers credit her with his published theories.  I believe the very nature of genius is the ability to apply creative thought to the prior conclusions of other thinkers.  What genius has ever stood alone?

To forum scientists, I apologize for my rudeness. I’m hoping that it will urge you to comment further on this subject.

Yep, I see that.  It would seem that you are baiting your scientist friends to discuss this subject with you.  Just might work… good luck.

Maggie

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