Cultural stability and progress

Most people need limits, stability and clarity.

The pseudonym Hanzi Freinacht, the writer of the book The Listening Society and a proponent of a convoluted worldview or ideology called metamodernism disagrees with me; or disagrees to the extent that hierarchies do and should exist based somewhat on the differential individual ability to withstand and understand complexity. Those who can take the contradictions of ever-transforming social and scientific revolutions end up dominating. Can’t deal with the complexity of society radically transforming before your eyes in mere decades? Down the toilet you go.

A lot of people might have a problem with that, and that is pretty much exactly what is happening in great parts of the Western civilizations at the moment.

Freinacht is most likely a lot more niche than their fans would like to think, but they do represent a general switch of consensus from singular, collective values and philosophies toward moral and hierarchical pluralism. What this means in practice is that people today look back with ridicule and contempt at Francis Fukuyama’s The end of history, which declared that the human civilization had finally found its ultimate form of government – a capitalist liberal democracy – and most if not all important developments that were ever going to occur were pretty much over and done with.

I count myself among people not exactly appreciating mr. Fukuyama’s conclusions, but I find that troubling. The reason for that isn’t that we were in for a whole lot more progress than he thought, but that we have lost all sight of collective progress during the last decade or so in the midst of insane political infighting, blaming and judging. All  political ideologies blame the other for ruining the society – everybody seems to agree that the brink of ruin is imminent, at least. Idealism has been replaced by a chaotic nihilism and cynicism, which are further magnified by the insanely fast communications of contemporary technology.

Such a place is a wonderful petri dish for political ideologies promising clear values which they claim to protect. And voilá, reactionary movements are spawning across the globe, and the people who sincerely believe in what has been labeled progress are still pretty stunned by the fact that Mr. Trump is the president of the United States. The fact that the political ground that the modern reactionary movements have gained is explained by common folks’ prejudices, racism, privilege and lack of education further exacerbates such movements’ appeal.

Most people need clear values, stability and clarity. They need limits to the extent to which their lives and values should be transformed through their lives. If they are not given that, they will turn to people who will promise those things. And so we face a situation where the most developed and progressive nations of today’s world seem to implode with escalating cultural tensions while much more autocratic, more conservative and less progressive nations rise to the challenge of maintaining stability in the 21st century.

Time will tell, huh?

To know what number comes after two

One of my all-time favorite books is Markus + Football 4Ever written by the late Klaus Hagerup. In the book, Markus Simonsen, a hopelessly unathletic, unattractive and unpopular kid falls desperately in love with Elizabeth, a football player who is, in pretty much every aspect, out of his league and a couple of years older to boot.

They meet while Markus is on a stroll with his friend, and they run across a branch that has fallen over the road. Elizabeth turns up riding a motorcycle with her brother, whom Markus mistakes to be her boyfriend. Asking Markus to give her a hand lifting the tree branch so they don’t have to turn back with the bike, Elizabeth stuns the poor young man with her beauty and manners; to such an extent, that is, that when she goes “1…2…3!” Markus is unable to lift in coordination, as he suddenly can’t remember what number comes after two.

The book carries on with Markus later on fantasizing of lifting Elizabeth on his muscular arms in front of a huge audience and knowing what number comes after two. It’s a great book, but what I wanted to talk about is the fact that what happened to Markus in the story is one of the greatest hurdles one can face in their lives. That is, knowing the simplest and most believable way to interpret something going on and acting accordingly.

It’s a remarkably difficult thing to do, to know what number comes after two and lift. What’s even more difficult is to understand how the heck somebody would be in such a state of mind that they wouldn’t understand it. Looking from the outside it seems quite simple, and we get frustrated at seeing somebody get so flustered that the most obvious course of action becomes inaccessible. Yet in real life, this is what in fact happens to the most of us all the time.

Think about a student sitting down to write that paper a they’re supposed to return next week. They haven’t got anything better to do, so instead of just sitting down and doing it they come up with the strangest loops of thought which result in them not writing the paper and ending up miserable having finally returned a sub-par work hastily sketched over the last night’s little hours.

Think about a person who dearly loves their partner and who ends up cheating on them all the same. And while they’re at it and it becomes all the more apparent that what’s being destroyed far outvalues that which is destroying it, they are unable to stop.

Think about a person who is told that they have cancer, and who, despite all their physician says, decides not to get any treatments although the treatment might very well save their life. And they carry on for years until they finally flip and ask for all the treatment they can get, when it is most likely too late.

Think about an employee or a boss who has far overworked themselves and has been told that they run the risk of falling apart completely by those they hold dear, and who, in spite of the obvious warning signs, carries on and burns out like a candle.

Looking at any of these and many more similar stories from the outside makes the obvious course of action and the results very easy to see. However, experiencing them firsthand proves us that knowing what to do and acting accordingly, even when it’s painfully obvious, might very well be the most difficult thing we’ll ever do.

What these stories highlight is the fact that as people we are equipped with faculties for feeling, reasoning and making sense of the world which have purposes only tangentially related to the goals we think we strive for. Meanwhile, as the cognitive wheels click and whir through their black box algorithms we end up feeling confused and miserable as our brains and bodies do all the things we didn’t think they would.

An explanation why that happens which I happen to favor, is one proposed by many different areas of inquiry; philosophers, Buddhist meditators, biologists and psychologists. The models preferred by each differ, but where they come together is that we are in fact very confused about our very essence and the things that drive our behavior. While we think we act reasonably and ethically, what really keeps us going is a mishmash of instincts tuned for adapting to social environments, strategies for survival we picked up while we were very young, and reflex-like reactivity dividing the world into good and bad, the attractive and the aversive.

Now, I believe that for the most part, those instincts and patterns of behavior do quite well. We are, in fact, alive and mostly well, aren’t we? However, as we age and experience the inevitable shortcomings of our reasonability and skills to cope, it pays off to ask whether we would in fact like to someday be able to say what number comes after two. And when we do, does it lead to that which we told ourselves we wanted? The answers to these and other similar questions of the real essence of our motivations and abilities depend, I suppose, on matters such as how we model our place and purpose in the world – that is, on meaning-making, which I intend to give a post of its own. Meanwhile I’ll just try to see if I can count to three, and ask some hard questions if I can’t.

Local resilience

Considering the great transformations our societies are going through it might make sense to seek for ways to strenghten and empower local communities.

Contemporary financial and political networks and technological infrastructures tend to emphasize a trend from the local towards the global. Decision-making has been concentrated to bureucratic organizations responsible for very large geographical and financial areas with huge populations. Such organizations include nation-states and international organizations designated to coordinate those nation-states (the EU, WTO, credit organizations, development banks, etc.), and also businesses  such as Google, Facebook and Amazon.

Such trends can be thought of as the individual giving up political and financial power in exchange for better living, more high-quality products, more safety, and more personal liberties including travel, migration and education. Nowadays we also seem to think that such trends are obviously mostly good, very likely to continue and such that resisting them is mostly a waste of time.

An interesting thing to note is that often the same people who oppose the concentration of wealth and power to businesses support the same thing if the ones accumulating wealth and power are international organizations such as the EU. On the other hand, people opposing the EU might approve of such power, if it was wielded by their local government. That is to say, it is not irrelevant to us who or what accumulates power, but it depends on our loyalties around axes such as localism / multinationalism, statism / liberal capitalism, cultural conservatism / progressivism, etc.

Of course, very much is talked about risks involved in the trends mentioned, but mostly we seem to accept them happening as such and contend to voice our opinions of them, sometimes perhaps pressuring some politicians to vote in a specific way. That, however, leaves us at the mercy of the global trends concentrating power. If such phenomena end up serving our purposes poorly, we might find ourselves in a position capable of little to no resistance at all. Such scenarios include but are not limited to crises in food production and ensuing famines, crises in energy production and ensuing power outages, severe unemployment and ensuing financial and political upheaval, being engaged in warfare which should not concern us personally, and the slow drift of money, political and military power and a luxurious lifestyle to a select few, whom the weakened and angry masses will be incapable of resisting.

I can’t offer a treatise exploring such scenarios, but I’m interested in the possibility of creating safety nets to avoid them. An important aspect of such solutions is that local communities and organizations are capable of resisting top-down developments if need be. That includes several dimensions of organization, such as the capacity to feed, educate, employ and protect people, the capacity for warfare, and perhaps most importantly the capacity to make coordinated decisions concerning the lives of many people in such matters.

A most crude example would be the formation of independent communities, which manufacture and produce their own food and goods. However, seeing as such communities would be remarkably difficult to upkeep and organize, I propose that more meta-level organizations be created for the purpose of ensuring local stability in the face of international developments which might threaten it. Such organizations might be created on the level of nation-states, but I recommend smaller ones. The reason for this is simple: nation-states are slow and cumbersome and to an extent reflect the ongoing developments of accumulating wealth and power.

This means that people living in an area should be aware of the means to use power in their vicinity. This might take the form of an industrial city taking advantage of its means of production, an area possessing technological infrastructure using that as leverage for negotiations concerning employment, or a rural area using agriculture. Local organizations should be developed to ensure that if large-scale developments were to enough threaten the local stability, people could use threats such as strikes, taking possession of the means of production or halting data communications as tools of negotiation to improve their positions. To avoid an anarchistic everybody’s war against everybody, developing such organizations should take place in today’s political environment in a peaceful manner, so as to decentralize political power to more local communities and provide a forum for them to participate in discussion. People would give such organizations the responsibility to represent them on larger scale issues, much like parliamentary systems do nowadays. The difference would be that political representatives of a sub-national region answer to that region of people in particular, and are also responsible for ensuring that a region has enough leverage to secure the most important local interests.

The advantage of creating a network of regional organizations entrusted with the task of using local means of power (employment, production, military engagement to an extent, etc.) over contemporary systems is that such organizations are by definition required to upkeep local means of ensuring stability, so as to avoid a situation where people find themselves completely neglected and oppressed by a political and financial elite somewhere far away. Such a system of  organizations operating on a level between the individual and the nation can easily be created in a democracy, if people wish. It also possesses an advantage over imagined indipendent communities, because it does not require that everything were to be produced locally, but instead works to ensure that people in a region retain enough political, financial, agricultural, military or other leverage to be able to negotiate with powers greater than themselves.

A toothless EU, and then what?

It saddens and frightens me greatly to witness the developments in the Middle East. I cannot claim to understand the map of relations between everything that has been built and burned over the last five to ten decades or so, but unluckily it does not take a geopolitical genius to realize that the world is changing for the worse. By the world I refer to a very specific set of beliefs possessed by generally white people, who live in Europe or the US.

That set of beliefs is something along the following lines: Although horrible things happen, they will mostly touch me via the news I watch or read. I personally won’t be put at risk of anything really bad actually happening. Whatever goes on, the country where I live will remain stable and safe. I won’t need to fear my peers or my government. A foreign invasion which would put me or my SO at arms is unimaginable.

Those beliefs are now being challenged, making in turn expectations of our world’s future worse. I live in an European country, so I’m aware of the implications Turkey’s recent and future actions might have. EU is going to tackle issues related to Turkey and its policies today – there are reasons not to get one’s hopes up.

For those who have decided that following news isn’t worth their precious time on this planet, the gist is pretty much this: The EU would like to condemn Turkey’s invasion of Kurdish areas as such, but besides wordplay there isn’t much it can do. Turkey holds the fate of millions of refugees, which it threatens to release to Europe. For scale, European countries were holding their heart at the million refugees and asylum seekers in 2015. Turkey, in turn, holds and upkeeps a mass of people of around four million people. The concentration camps in and around Greece are already at their limits, with bursts of violence, infections and hopelessness escalating enough to threaten that the refugees will, in fact, make their way further into Europe. It should not come as a surprise that Europeans are somewhat giddy at the thought of that being merely the prelude to a much greater symphony of ethnographic transformations and instability.

Now, the EU pays Turkey money not to send the refugees to Europe. Most of what has been already paid has been spent, and Turkey demands more. Seeing as Turkey has respected its promise not to release a wave of migrants to Europe, the EU will likely reciprocate and pay more in order to avoid the escalation of ethnic tensions and preclude the rise of reactionary regimes like those of Hungary’s Fidesz and Poland’s Law and Order. That means that whatever means Europeans have for pressuring Turkey, they will eventually pay the upside-down ransom so that Turkey will keep its hostages. I predict that the EU will have no viable tools to deter Turkey from not acting however it likes so long as it doesn’t directly challenge an EU country’s borders – and that might change, too.

That is, the EU is quickly losing any credibility it has had at protecting its people from instability. Now, helping those in need is important, but history has shown time and again that pleasing the electorate matters in politics. If the people currently in power won’t promise safety, someone else in turn will, and that sort of development has its risks.

This reflects a transformation in what is to be expected of international relations and international order. As the Syrian civil war, the Burmese oppression of Rohingya Muslims, the Darfur genocide and the fate of Chinese Uigur Muslims quite bitterly show, the global order is toothless when it comes to preventing violence and oppression from actually occurring. This, of course, has been the state of affairs from the very beginning, but what has changed is that the world’s most powerful empire in history has decided that it is no longer too interested in European safety and stability. That is, the aforementioned crises might end up affecting prosperous white people, too.

I repeat, it saddens and frightens me greatly. I happen to enjoy the privileges of peace and prosperity possessed by a relatively rich, well-off EU country, and however much I’d like to take delight in the prospect of equal sharing of misery, the thought merely sends a chill down my spine.

Meditation and enlightenment as illusions

Recently John Yates, aka Culadasa Upakasa, the author of a highly praised and insightful meditation manual The Mind Illuminated, became the center of a scandal. Details won’t matter here, but it suffices to say that infidelity and the possibly of him abusing his position as a renowned and influential Dharma teacher were relevant. I can’t say I was surprised by this, as it does not seem uncommon for spiritual leaders to end up in similar situations just as it isn’t uncommon among other people.

What did catch me by surprise was the intensity of the popular reaction towards the events. Many questioned the very core tenets of meditation – that it leads to better living, that it reduces suffering, that a spiritual awakening is something to work hard to attain. People asked questions such as if the man can’t stay faithful to his wife, how on earth are they supposed to trust that meditation can help them with their much more intense issues. A local culmination point was reached when someone expressed their doubt over whether Insight and Awakening in fact truly lead to any deeper understanding of anything, or whether they are merely different points of view, giving an illusion of depth and understanding.

By no means do I think that anyone’s private life should be this public, and I’d like to express both my condolences for Mr. Yates for ending up in this situation, and my gratitude towards him for writing a very good manual on meditative techniques. Having said that, I think the reaction that followed is a wonderful thing for a couple of reasons.

There is no reason to suppose that a person, having attained meditative insights such as experiences of no-self and cessation of thought, possesses any useful knowledge at all that should make them better at living. People claim various things related to such experiences, and we know that for some, they turn out to be debilitating for years and years after. We do have stories and promises that having attained this and that, one no longer needs to use drugs for entertainment, to binge on food for comfort or to have lots of sex to be happy. A very successful teacher claims that enlightenment lowers the molecular density of the human body, thereby delaying senescence.

Now, I apologize for being blunt, but it is very foolish to believe such stories, even if they dealt with mere subjective phenomena. There simply are no good reasons to believe. People report a variety of experiences and outcomes related to meditation, and people who meditate represent a tremendous variety of genetic, cultural, familial and psychological backgrounds. To expect very singular outcomes of behavior from such a diverse population is analogous to believing that lead can be turned to gold.

A more useful attitude towards meditative benefits is to approach others’ stories with an open, if skeptical perspective, and try to see if what meditation teachers say fits into the larger whole of knowledge they have at hand. Quite quickly they should be able to dismiss claims of levitation, invisibility and transcendental bodies with an access to all cosmic knowledge. Soon enough they should notice that certain claims (say, that an enlightened being never gets mad) seem highly implausible if not impossible. And following that, they should conclude that as there exists a whole range of meditative philosophies and practices, and as there exists an ever greater range of human experiences relative to meditative practices, they should always remain cautious of universal claims relative to meditation.

As an analogy, it helps to think how we would react if someone told us that studying exactly four hours a day will suffice for attaining a university degree, and that having attained that degree, one will be able to solve mathematical problems with ease. For whom? Which degree? Which problems? Studying how? Still, people accept nonchalantly similar claims of meditative attainments.

There is also no reason to have many, if any presuppositions of spiritual awakenings at all. First of all, Buddha himself, although eager to dispel doubt, encouraged a critical attitude towards meditation. Also lots of meditative literature takes quite the while pointing out what meditative attainments aren’t moreso than what they are. Regarding spiritual awakening, whatever that may mean, as a singular event identical for all human beings betrays a deep ignorance on the very obvious attributes that make people different from one another. If someone says “I don’t believe in enlightenment!”, I’ll say good. Whatever meditation does to a mind is for that mind to find out themselves. There is nobody besides a person themselves who could anyhow be able to tell them with certainty what experiences meditation should give them.

What these matters confirm, I believe, is the fact that people turn to meditation in search for answers on questions so deep and difficult that no singular answer would ever cover even one of them completely. Lacking the evidence for their assumptions that meditation  leads to the end of suffering, to marital fidelity, to liberty from craving, to infinite patience or whatever, they rely on faith instead. Faith is a fragile thing, and when presented with opposite evidence, faith falters and wavers. That means that whatever the recent scandal around Mr. Yates tells us, one of the most important things among them is that people have believed his teachings relying on blind faith, and now that faith is being questioned.

In the end, the answer to questions such as “What am I supposed to believe? That meditation leads to spiritual enlightenment and much better, if not perfect behavior? Or that it’s just an illusion? Or that it’s a hoax?” is very simple. You’re not supposed to believe anything at all. It is far more useful to regard such points of view as models of knowledge, which may or may not be useful to you, very likely depending on who you are.

Now, a powerful counterargument against this idea is the fact that most of those who have meditated a lot (that is, several hours a day for years) would tell you that no, meditation in fact does lead to understanding of how the mind works, and that however powerful an experience your separate Self may seem, it is merely an illusion played by your mind. All I can say to that is that it is likely that the Self is something that becomes an illusion over countless hours of meditation. That is a simplification of how I view it, but it is complicated a matter enough to deserve its own post. People who haven’t meditated a lot likely feel powerfully that a separate Self of their own exists. People who have meditated a lot likely feel that it doesn’t. Recalling what I’ve written previously on knowledge, we may rest at ease not asking which of these is the Real Truth revealing the ultimate facts of matter. Instead is suffices to say that experiences of Self and No-Self are both real and represent different models of consciousness and identity, both of which are probably adaptive in their respective environments and less in some others.

The Turing Test: a game review

The Turing test is a single-player, closed world puzzle game. It’s a relatively straightforward experience with some optional material which serves to deepen the storyline and underline philosophical and moral themes and concepts relevant to the game. All in all, I found the game a rewarding and interesting experience, which perhaps could have benefited from a deeper delving into the philosophical, ethical and scientific questions it presents.

The gameplay consists of solving what are early on interpreted in the game as Turing tests. A Turing test is a thought experiment conceived by Alan Turing, a highly influential computer scientist who lived in the 20th century. The test’s purpose is to find out whether an artificial intelligence could plausibly present itself as a human being in a conversation. The tester is a human whose assignment is to judge whether they are having a conversation with a human or not. As such, I’m sure many AIs of today would have an easy time passing a Turing test, depending on the rigorousness of the person testing them, but the idea generalizes to a range of tests to provide answers to questions such as whether AIs can think, feel or have experiences in a human manner.

In practice the player is required to solve logical puzzles to escape into a corridor leading to the next puzzle. The game provides interludes, during which the player can help themselves to immerse into the story and become familiar with what has occurred. The game also has optional, sideline puzzles which usually require more lateral (“outside the box -“) thinking. Rewards consist of further knowledge into the story.

Personally I liked the game a lot; it has good voice acting, a nicely written storyline and some profound philosophical themes, including ethics and utilitarian reasoning, the nature of consciousness, whether machines can think or feel, mortality and immortality. The difficulty of the puzzles seemed just right for me; enough to require actual thinking but not so hard as to demoralize me completely. For me the puzzle solving became tiring and troublesome during the final quarter of the game, and I was relieved to find out I was at the end of the game.

As for its depth, I conclude that the game does a very good job at presenting important and interesting questions, and a much less good job at exploring them. In the end it mostly serves as a jump starter for curiosity towards learning more, which, I suppose, is already quite a lot considering we are talking about a video game. However, having played Metal Gear Solid 2 as a child, I set the bar quite high when talking about philosophical games. Having mentioned MGS 2, it’s worth pointing out that it explores very similar questions The Turing test presents, but in a much deeper, layered and complex manner.

Rating: 3/5

Recommended? Yes, if you like puzzle solving and are interested in but not too familiar with philosophy of consciousness and utilitarian ethics.

On knowledge

As I’ve discussed in my previous posts (here, here and here), in my adulthood I’ve slowly come to understand if not what knowledge and knowing is, then at least what it is not. A naïve model of knowledge could be something like this: an objective reality exists, and the degree of knowledge one has of the world is the degree of overlap between their model of that objective world and the world-in-itself. Facts are the parts of the objective world which can be known – modeled accurately – and serve as measuring sticks against which we lay our models of the world. If our model does not conform to facts or does not logically follow from them, then to that extent it is not knowledge. From our point of view, facts are experiences which can be successfully predicted: if conditions for an experience are created such and such, I can predict that an experience will occur, and eventually that experience will in fact occur.

You may notice that we could just drop the assumption of an objective world from the model right away, and it wouldn’t make a difference as to how we would approach knowledge. I’ll get to that in a moment. Like this, it’s a good enough model to satisfy my immediate curiosity, but it has some caveats.

First of all, people aren’t really that concerned with knowledge. Knowledge is something we are naturally interested in, but only insofar as it has to do with survival and adapting to a changing environment; much of which is social. That relates to the ideas to which we are willing to conform and which we defend or attack. We do not treat knowledge as a value in and as of itself, but instead as a tool to further purposes we value. People are inclined to reject knowledge that would undermine beliefs they value; few people immediately adjust their beliefs and values instead. Likewise that skepticism disappears if we like a piece of knowledge. These biases are called motivated skepticism and confirmation bias, and they are well documented examples of a larger phenomenon of how we create, process and react to knowledge. So we update our model by adding: knowledge is not something immediately obvious, but instead something which we relate to based on its estimated usefulness and the degree to which it corroborates our earlier beliefs.

That has to do with how we react to experiences which might or might not have to do with knowledge. However, even the basic building blocks of knowledge, facts, aren’t easy. What’s essential to knowledge is that it needs to be verifiable, but few things are so easily verifiable that one can expect to be able to verify them all by themselves. If we seek to know anything outside the immediate sphere of our experience, we are required to trust other people’s experiences at least to a degree. Much of knowledge also requires the cooperation of several people to be attained (a simple example would be a group of prehistoric people using scouts to warn of looming dangers). That is, most of what counts as knowledge includes trust between people; for an individual’s purposes, then, our naïve model should also include the notion: facts are also experiences which other people will predictably have, given that such a bond of trust exists that I need not have the experiences myself to ascertain them as facts, and given that I would in fact have the same experiences if I were in their position.

Also the form the knowledge we have takes is dependent on how we experience (the biological component, so to say) and associate experiences, which experiences and aspects of experiences we prioritize and how we formulate those experiences in language, sensory models or emotions. Again we update our naïve model of knowledge with an addendum: As such, the extent to which knowledge can overlap with an objective world or to which it can successfully predict experiences depends on how well the world and eventual experiences can be modeled by means of our psychology, sensory abilities, language and emotions. Or As such, what knowledge means will depend on our psychology, visual abilities… etc.

Knowledge is also context dependent. An easy example is how the laws of physics fit into our experiences: Newton’s laws do not explain everything, but in the context of masses moving at relatively low speeds we can trust to be able to make reliable predictions based on them – that is, we can trust them to produce knowledge. On the other hand, outside that context Newton’s equations cannot be used to produce knowledge in a straightforward manner. So we update our model by saying that knowledge is not universal but instead is defined and limited by its presuppositions (in our example, that masses move at speeds far less than the speed of light). This is practically a variation of the previous addendum; the modes and limitations of our cognition are perhaps the most important presuppositions that exists, as they are extremely hard or impossible to overcome. That is, all (humanly meaningful) knowledge presupposes that it is produced by human cognition.

Now, regarding both the fact that we are prisoners of our biopsychological faculties of cognition – or any other faculties we might have improving upon technology – and the fact that the way which we produce, maintain and process knowledge has social components such as trust and language, and having added the ideas of context specificity and limiting presuppositions, we can safely say that a model of knowledge need not assume an objective reality. Whether or not such a reality exists is a matter of discussion, and I’m already too much out of my depth to engage such a matter here. However, it suffices to say that even if a naïve model of knowledge benefits greatly from such an assumption, our addenda make such an assumption needlessly cumbersome, so we may as well drop it and be content with the idea that knowledge relates to experiences and predicting them.

So, having updated the naïve model this post began with, we have something like this: Knowledge is a model of reality which enables us to predict eventual experiences, depending on context. That model is built upon a more or less predetermined framework of biological necessities, prior experiences, cultural influences, language and prioritized associations. All knowledge presupposes either other experiences or requirements for experiences to occur. Knowledge requires trust to be of use; to trust our own experiences and to trust other people to give us reliable information (whether or not they intend to) precedes knowledge. In the absence of trust, no knowledge is possible. Facts are predictable experiences, which we react to depending on their estimated usefulness and on whether or not we like or dislike them.

It’s by no means a great model, but we can work with it. First, we can completely drop any intuition of “pure knowledge” independent of outside influences; such a thing is by definition impossible, as knowledge is a way to relate experiences to a framework whose purpose is to predict further experiences. We can also drop the idea of knowledge without cultural significance, because culture precedes knowledge (is knowledge, in fact); all knowledge is related to cultural ideas and further influences that culture.

These help us drop the idea of “objective” knowledge. We may assume that an objective world exist (so as not to fall victim to insincere and useless relativism), but our knowledge has little to do with such an assumption. Instead any knowledge we have is always by its very nature subjective and only takes the form our sensory, cognitive, cultural and linguistic frameworks enable. Those pieces of knowledge may or may not relate to an assumed objective reality, but that need not be perceived as an useful aspect of knowledge – all that matters is its ability to help predict further experiences.

That subjectivity, however, is preceded by a notion of trust in one’s own and others’ experiences. Trust is so essential to any knowledge that lack of trust immediately undermines any knowledge related to that trust. I find that part particularly interesting, since it points out that interpersonal trust is essential not only for successful and pleasant interaction, but also for a reliable worldview. Lacking interpersonal trust we regress to questioning basic tenets of reality established by our peers or predecessors and become further unable to form reliable predictions of the future. (If, however, such a lack of trust enables us to better predict future, we are of course right in trusting our own judgment and trusting others’ less). Lacking trust in both ourselves and others will leave us completely helpless, which links our model of knowledge to the psychological concept of learned helplessness.

Such a model also leads us to conclude that knowledge is by no means absolute, and it will vary as a function of our priors, beliefs, emotions and further experiences. To find out things which contradict things we perceive as knowledge should then enable us to relate to our new knowledge in a way surpassing the primitive confirmation and other biases, as we realize that different frameworks of predicting further experiences enable different sorts of knowledge. By learning possibly contradictory things we learn of different vantage points to further predicting our future; those points of view may not and will not be of equal value, but instead of judging them merely as real or unreal we can judge them as knowledge more or less integrated to our other predictions and behavior. Of course, usefulness can also be determined on whether or not we feel content with whatever worldview a piece of knowledge enables, which further distances the concept of knowledge from a naïve notion of objective reality.

That is not to say that knowledge should not be useful to predict eventual experiences or that we should appreciate all claimed knowledge as of equal value. It is to say that whatever knowledge is, it is by its very nature such that merely asking “is it real knowledge or not” will never encapsulate the whole of the processes which create what we call knowledge. Blinding oneself to certain aspects of knowledge (its cultural and biopsychological priors, as some mathematically inclined people seem to do, or its ability to predict further experiences as some relativistic, humanities-oriented people seem to do) will produce a very coherent set of beliefs, which however may be very stiff and awkward when used in contexts alien to its core use (like using logical connectives and numerical probability distributions to predict whether someone would like to be my friend).

What we gain from such addenda to a naïve model of knowledge is dispassion towards matters of fact and knowledge. By now we should be able to appreciate that knowledge which we do not understand or would intuitively reject might have uses or implications we might not immediately be able to understand; and also that whatever reactions we have towards something that might or might not become our knowledge are dependent on our personal worldview and interpersonal trust more than the new information’s perceived “realness”.

I will elaborate my thoughts on knowledge and trust in a further post on the matter.