Tag Archives: space

#58 On the conditions of knowledge

Dear Jamie,

Years ago I heard a story (possibly apocryphal) that after the space race the Russian and American space agencies made things unnecessarily complicated and expensive for themselves when they first had to dock their ships with each other. Docking ships was a solved problem, one had a shaft and the other had a shaft-hole. Vulgar but reliable. Of course, after the manly biff that was the space race the victorious USA wasn’t going to let a beaten foe penetrate one of theirs, and the Russians obviously weren’t keen on a follow up humiliation. At great expense the two collaborated to develop a complicated female-female docking mechanism and from that day forward they’ve symmetrically rutted.

Your lock/key metaphor took a couple of reads to understand but I think I get it. I was saying adaptations reflect truths, which is to say they somehow represent (I was saying “encode”) some truth. Instead you say it’s more a “hack”, something that exploits the world without awareness certainly but also even without reflecting any truth. This is most obvious if you manipulate the environment so that the hack fails.

The idea a hack is informationless and so the knowledge lies externally is just the reverse of the more commonly held extreme that all the knowledge is in the genes and the world is inert. I’m convinced the answer is between these two extremes. Deutsch and Dennett explain the well-known problem of memes and genes both not being valuable by themselves. In each case you need a gene reader (a creature) and meme reader (a person with shared knowledge) which has its own knowledge/hacks. So I’ll argue that the theory/hack/trait ruts against reality and does reflect it.

Just where knowledge resides depends of course on what knowledge is and neither of us are sure of that. If we were to start using the word “hack” to mean extreme complete uninsightful behaviour and “truth” the precise opposite of this, total omniscient fundamental insight, then I define knowledge as whatever’s in between these extremes and connects, like a ramp, one to the other. We don’t need a correspondence theory of truth for this. To avoid it completely we can define knowledge as anything more insightful than a hack, and that there are degrees of insightfulness with either no end point truth or an endpoint so far away it doesn’t matter.

The other thing about knowledge is that it’s only determinable against a matching “problem situation”. Problem situations are fair tests analogous to your locks. The peck contains knowledge when tested against the problem situation of its natural upbringing, but it lacks knowledge when humans manipulate it in an experiment. If you ignore problem situations you’ll find yourself presuming a total lack of knowledge embedded in a Saturn V rocket because it fails to launch from inside an active volcano. There are only a few hundred square meters on planet Earth (actually in the entire cosmos) where a Saturn V rocket can function, now that’s an impotent pecker.

Evolutionary science is a search for problem situations that explain animal traits. A successful explanation like this is a “discovery” in the sense that humans are now aware of the missing half that dis-covered the full nature of the exploitation that was always functioning. In evolution the trait’s “reader” is some genuine “selection pressure”. So long as creatures are always “on the edge of extinction” (as Dennett says all creatures are) then the random mutations of the selected genes make real adaptive progress. What Popper calls a “tradition of scientific criticism” is required to make sure theories are “on the edge of extinction”, hence selected theories really get better at explaining the world.* These two things are more than analogies.

Hacks do not exist, they are illusions brought about from an ignorance of the problem situation. It is extremely hard to tell the difference between a trait whose selection pressure is yet to be discovered and a random unpressured mutation. It’s exactly the epistemological mechanism that limits our awareness of the knowledge in our theories without a valid problem situation to explain or to test them against.

Theories/traits must reflect their problem situation, otherwise the latter would be irrelevant when considering the formers’ utilisable knowledge. As theories and traits reflect their problem situation, and because problem situations can exist at any scale and any level of emergence, real knowledge can be achieved at any level of abstraction. Pecking reflects the reality of the function of “red dots” the way a Saturn V reflects the reality of the function of a “launch pad” the way Newtonian physics reflects the reality of the function of “the force of gravity” the way that general relativity reflects the reality of “curved space time”.** Knowledge is contextual, hence your lock and key metaphor – one needs the other. But the key matches the contours of the lock and both of these are aspects of reality.***



* I CANNOT let this letter end without killing the suggestion that I think science is thrown out and updated every 20 years. No that’s Kuhnnian rubbish. Most pop science books are wrong though, that’s just Sturgeon’s law.

** The correspondence theory of truth is kind of greedy reductionism applied to truth.

*** Evolution is a little more complicated. The birds evolved to peck at red dots in reality. But the red dots themselves evolved to be pecked. Sometimes reality ruts back.