Charles Tandy, Ph.D.
Associate Professor of Humanities and Director
Center for Interdisciplinary Philosophic Studies
Fooyin Institute of Technology
Part 1, The Philosophic Search For Knowledge, explains why philosophers today are sceptical of our ability to know absolute Reality. Nevertheless, it makes sense to talk about practical knowledge for good decision-making. Part 2 says that historically human knowledge has evolved alternatively in a ‘normal’ or ‘revolutionary’ way. Then a third approach, ‘stereovision’, is introduced and advocated. Part 3, Practical Knowledge And World Betterment, articulates a number of ideas related to the quality, reliability, maintenance, and increase of knowledge. The final part predicts the integration of biotechnology and infotechnology, and our creation of transmortal transhuman offspring.
1. THE PHILOSOPHIC SEARCH FOR KNOWLEDGE
Descartes, the acknowledged founder of modern philosophy, attempted to gain knowledge or find out Reality by trying to doubt everything. Both his sceptical methodology and his dualistic findings failed. Later, Kant countered Hume’s extreme scepticism, but Kant’s own epistemic project proved less conclusive than he imagined.
Philosophers today are sceptical of our ability to know the World of Reality. All we have are appearances. We can compare appearance with appearance, but we cannot compare appearance with Reality. Thus it makes some sense to concentrate on more practical matters: In the World of Appearances in which we live, some decisions and actions are presumably better than others. All alleged ‘facts’ are not equal; likewise, all alleged ‘values’ are not equal. Perhaps we can learn to better evaluate and extent our ‘knowledge’ of facts and values and logics and decision-making.
Presumably it is our interaction with the (unknown) World of Reality that presents us with a World of Appearances. However there is no guarantee that either Reality or appearances are rational/ consistent -- a fortiori if we mean human rationality/ consistency. Moreover, Reality may be incommensurable with any humanly possible account of what is the case. (Medieval philosophers asked whether we could talk about God only by use of analogy.)
Nevertheless, we can postulate alternative presuppositions, values, logics, facts, narratives, and models, then engage in good faith dialog with others, to attempt to choose in the World of Appearances alternative courses of action that may be reasonable/ meaningful/ fruitful. At any point in time in the course of such ‘never-ending’ good faith dialog over many centuries or millenniums, it is possible to ask what the consensus is with reference to our apparent knowledge of the world in which we live. For example, it seems reasonable enough to me to accept as a working hypothesis that there is an interior world (‘self’) and that there is an exterior world (other persons and objects). In our World of Appearances we attempt to detect reliable patterns and live meaningful or fruitful lives. But over time our state of ‘knowledge’ changes, sometimes falsifying old ‘knowledge’. Considerations such as these suggest the following stance with reference to the quality-reliability-maintenance of knowledge (i.e., ‘knowledge’ of ‘facts’ and ‘values’ and ‘logics’ and decision-making): ‘There is much I do not know. Moreover, at least some of my present knowledge may need revision. Perhaps the general framework or basic models I use to make good/bad and true/false judgements may need revision or replacement. “While, however, they continue to withstand criticism and seem superior to available alternatives, it is sensible to stay with them.” ’ (1)
2. NORMAL, REVOLUTIONARY, AND STEREOVISIONARY KNOWLEDGE
Sometimes our knowledge apparently advances in a rather simple add-new-knowledge or delete-bad-knowledge way. But sometimes the basic presuppositions, models, stories, emotions, values, or worldviews we use change radically. As Kenneth Boulding and Thomas Kuhn have said, sometimes our knowledge structure changes in a ‘normal’ way, other times the change is ‘revolutionary’.
Godel’s incompleteness theorems suggest to me the possibility of stereovision – using a variety of paradigms simultaneously. (Loosely described, it seems Godel rigorously demonstrated there are truths that cannot be justified even in principle without changing to a new paradigm – yet the new paradigm will necessarily have the same kind of insoluble difficulty.) Using a variety of paradigms simultaneously (stereovision) may help with our decision-making even though it is not a complete methodology. ‘Normal advances’ in knowledge are relatively easy to explain, as they fit within the same general framework or universe of discourse. But ‘revolutionary advances’ in knowledge -- as well as the stereovisionary approach I have just advocated – are not well understood; surely these issues are worthy of research funding. Such new knowledge about knowledge would be non-trivial.
3. PRACTICAL KNOWLEDGE AND WORLD BETTERMENT
What other matters seem worthy of attention as we try to improve our World of Appearances (facts, values, logics, and decision-making)? Many of the ideas to follow are based on the ideas of Kenneth Boulding or are plausible extensions of his ideas. (2)
3.1 Quality and reliability of knowledge
In addition to the ‘knowledge about knowledge’ research previously suggested, research is also needed to gain interdisciplinary general knowledge and knowledge of general systems. Such general knowledge, if of high quality, would add vital unifying ‘glue’ to our knowledge structure.
Evolution, including evolution of language and of knowledge, is a disequilibrium system. Thus language should be open-ended, open to modification, open to learning new realities and new fantasies. In the course of the evolution of knowledge, truth has a long-term advantage over non-truth because truth is not falsifiable.
We need quality knowledge and social inventions toward establishing a non-totalitarian world at stable peace (e.g., development of quality knowledge for conflict resolution, conflict management, societal evolution, and economic development). Power, wealth, justice, and quality knowledge are in general good in the long run for everyone. How do we make everyone in the world wise and wealthy?
For advancement of quality knowledge in the domain of science, good faith dialog and ongoing feedback (so-called “reality-testing”) are vital. Science seeks abstract laws (repetition) while the humanities prefer inward uniqueness. The right kind of philosophic, historical, and social-science knowledge can act as a bridge between the sciences and humanities.
Knowledge of how to make the world better has more long-term evolutionary potential than knowledge of how to stop the world from getting worse. Excessive concern with alleviating evils can blind us to the long-term evolutionary (variation-and-selection) processes necessary to nourish the advancement of quality knowledge. The advancement of knowledge, the mentality of research, tells us it is not true that ‘there is only so much to go around’. Rather, new knowledge creates evolutionary potential and new resources.
Success reinforces our confidence and too easily leads to arrogance. Failure produces learning/mislearning and too easily leads to bitterness. Inefficiencies and redundancies, with room for mistakes, can help us meet intellectual crises and advance our knowledge in revolutionary ways. Highly efficient knowledge systems are systems operating at a minimal or “survival” level, with little room for the dynamic evolutionary processes that can lead to revolutionary intellectual advancement. The inefficiencies of biological evolution gave us sexual reproduction and the inefficiencies of the renaissance-reformation period in human history gave us science.
In the long story of evolution, it is not the fittest that survive. The fittest fit too efficiently into the old environment -- they do not survive in the new environment. Thomas Edison said that invention is 99% perspiration and 1% inspiration; in a given project, he would continue to try and fail and try and fail – as long as it took until he tried and succeeded.
3.2 Maintenance and increase of knowledge
Humans forget and humans die – thus we may say that 1% of all human knowledge is lost each year and must be replaced. As humanity’s store of knowledge increases, the maintenance function of education becomes more burdensome; it takes us, say, not 20 but 40 years to catch up to the present state of knowledge in our area of specialisation. Perhaps Benjamin Franklin was the last ‘Renaissance Man’; polymaths are no substitute.
We need to invent new physical and social technologies to cope with the information overload. If we had more, and more creative, educational economists, perhaps they could help. With more specialisations, our store of knowledge increases – but we sometimes forget our need for those who specialise in interdisciplinary knowledge, even interdisciplinary general knowledge.
If humans destroy themselves in the absence of transhuman offspring, then we will have failed in the knowledge quest. Thus we should attempt to gain knowledge of how to flourish rather than die. For example, quality knowledge of how to develop a high-technology society that is environmentally friendly would help us get from here to there.
Likewise, technology allowing us to flourish in multiple locations other than in the single biosphere of planet Earth seems wise. I understand this technology is already in hand or at least not beyond our grasp. Such large free-floating Earth-like extraterrestrial communities (self-sufficient and able to reproduce other extraterrestrial habitats at a geometric rate) would have multiple benefits. For example, if land is freely available, then there is less chance of conflict over a specific piece of land. Likewise, differing cultural traditions can be realised rather than globalised. Since the evolution of knowledge proceeds via variation-and-selection, this appears superior to globalisation.
The advancement of knowledge allows us to build artefacts to test our fantasies/ speculations. Not only does knowledge growth allow us to improve our knowledge of the past, but also to realise/ actualise our fantasies about the future. Pre-humans simply expanded to fill their environmental niches, but humans are able to create the environments into which they expand.
Especially in matters related to the domain of social science, it is too easy to hold on to untested knowledge rather than test it and find it false. Some things are easy to test, some difficult, and some impossible (at least for the foreseeable future). The decisions we make today help determine the terms under which the advancement of knowledge and ‘the never-ending dialog’ may and may not proceed.
Practical knowledge expands not into absolute Reality but into an accessible universe of discourse. This means, as we talk to our self and others, that it is sometimes necessary to make up the concepts and discourse as we go along. (Poets, perhaps, are good at this?)
4. THE FUTURE OF KNOWLEDGE
Our image of the future should be an uncertain one. Nevertheless, we may have more or less reasonable expectations. We engage in practical reasoning with the future in mind.
Biotechnology and infotechnology have produced wonders some of us equate to science fiction. Integration of these two fields (including the developing technologies of molecular nanotechnology) is easily predictable. Although the gestation period may be uncertain and difficult to map, I fully expect that there are transmortal transhuman offspring in our future. Presumably transhumans will live for millenniums and will experience emotions and develop values unknown and unknowable to mere humans. Living in robust worlds of self-controlled virtual reality is also beyond the experience of humans past.
A human’s conscious mind tends to focus on only one thing at a time and to interpret a single appearance as Reality. But the stereovisionary approach to knowledge, a difficult skill for humans to master, will be child’s play to transhumans. Just as human knowledge superseded the knowledge of pre-human organisms, human knowledge will be superseded. Perhaps the scientific resurrection of all dead persons who have ever lived will someday become a practical political project. To what extent our transhuman offspring may be able to explore beyond appearances and into Reality, I do not know. In any case, I wish them and us well, as we continue our ‘never-ending’ quest for the good, the true, the beautiful.
1. E.A. Burtt, In Search Of Philosophic Understanding (New York: New American Library, 1967), 176.
2. Charles Tandy, Educational Implications Of The Philosophy Of Kenneth Boulding (Ann Arbor, MI: UMI/ Bell & Howell, 1993), 7-280.