Précis of epistemology/The value of knowledge

(currently being rewritten)

The ideal of intelligibilityEdit

We seek a knowledge that makes the world and ourselves intelligible. We not only want to know true and justified statements. We want explanations.

We ask empirical theories to be confirmed by past observations and predict future observations, but this is not enough. We also want them to give us good explanations of what we observe. Predicting is not enough to explain.

We ask ethical theories to evaluate actions, behaviors, purposes, speeches ... but this is not enough. We not only want them to tell us what is desirable or mandatory, we also want them to tell us why, to explain their evaluations.

We do not ask only to abstract theory to prove theorems, we want them to enlighten us, to help us to understand abstract and concrete realities, to make them intelligible.

What is a good explanation? What does a theory need to enlighten or illuminate us?

Any knowledge that helps us to know a being, if only by analogy, can be considered as an explanation. But we ask more than that for reality to be intelligible. We want to be able to respond by reasoning to the questions we can ask ourselves. We want to know principles from which we can prove what we need to explain. However, any system of principles does not necessarily do the trick. Instead of enlightening us, it can make things even more obscure. What conditions must meet our principles to enlighten us, to make reality more intelligible?

We do not know very well. We can not know everything about it because science is innovative, because no one knows in advance the explanations it will discover. But we do have evaluation criteria that guide us in finding good explanations. Simplicity of principles, their generality, analysis of complexity , knowledge of ends, and sometimes theoretical beauty are the main criteria commonly invoked to evaluate our explanations. They apply equally to empirical, ethical and abstract knowledge.

Requiring simplicity of the principles is simply requiring that they be few and can be formulated in few words. Requiring their generality, is requiring that they be applied to a large number of individual cases. Such requirements may seem excessive and unrealistic. Why could the world with all its complexity be explained from a few simple principles? Individual cases are always different from each other. Why then should they all obey the same principles?

The ideal of intelligibility is sometimes associated with beauty, as a criterion of theory evaluation. Theories are asked to be beautiful, or to reveal to us the beauty of reality. This is not really a criterion because we do not know in advance what makes the beauty of theory or reality. But the desire for beauty is a powerful motivation for the pursuit of knowledge. It is a little surprising a priori. Why should reality be beautiful? Do we not believe in life in pink if we say that a theory must be beautiful to be true, or that it must reveal the beauty of the world? Yet the desire for beauty is not vain. Especially in theoretical physics (Albert Einstein, Paul Dirac), but also in all other sciences, the search for beauty has led to the most fundamental discoveries.

The analysis of complexityEdit

To analyze a complex system is to identify its parts, to say how they are assembled and, if the system is dynamic, how they interact. Since a part is generally itself a system composed of parts, which are themselves systems, and so on, we distinguish several levels, the macro level, that is the level of the whole system, and various micro, or nano levels.

We often give ourselves as an ideal of knowledge an analysis such that the macro level be explained by the micro one. The system properties and its movement or behavior shall be explained from the properties of the parts, their movements or behaviors, how they are assembled and their laws of interaction. When this ideal of knowledge is reached, we have a reductionist, or analytic, explanation of the system. In empirical science, complex systems are often too poorly known for such an ideal to be achieved. However, when it comes to abstract beings, this ideal of analytic knowledge is always achieved, because abstract beings are completely determined by our definitions. Even if it is very complex, an abstract system always consists of very simple elements, whose fundamental properties are fully known. The principles that enable us to infer its properties from those of its parts and their assembly mode are also fully known and may be formulated with a few simple laws.

It is sometimes claimed that the ideal of analytical knowledge be rejected, because the micro level itself may have to be explained from the macro level. For example, to understand the behavior of an individual, one must know the society in which he or she lives. But this does not contradict the ideal of analytic knowledge. It asks that social phenomena be explained from individual behavior, but it does not require that we know everything about the individuals before knowing their society. In order to know the individuals, all sources of knowledge are welcome, including knowledge already gained on their society. There is indeed a circle, because we use the knowledge at the micro level to gain knowledge at the macro level and vice versa, but it is not vicious. We develop knowledge on complex systems by a dialogue between the macro and micro levels.

Reductionist explanations are sometimes ridiculed as reductionism, a kind of materialistic and scientistic program that would require all our scientific knowledge to be proven with reductionist explanations from the fundamental laws of interaction between elementary particles. Such a program is perfectly unrealistic since its implementation would reduce science to elementary particle physics, or to nothing, because particle physics can not be developed without the help of other sciences. Even the physics of atoms and molecules would not be a science because it requires auxiliary principles which are not proven from those of particle physics.

Reductionist explanations are widely used in all empirical sciences, but there is probably not one scientist who would approve the reductionist program as it has been formulated above. And except for physicists, they are few to worry about the interactions between particles and their laws, which in general they do not know.

The purpose of reductionist explanations, the ideal of analytic knowledge that they strive to achieve, is not to prove everything from particle physics. It is indeed to understand the real world and all that it contains as vast complex systems, which are all made from the same elements, and whose behaviors result from the interactions between these elements. But it does require that everything be proven from the laws of interaction between the elements. The purpose of a reductionist explanation is not even necessarily to prove. If the parts and their laws of interaction are already well known then yes reductionist explanations sometimes enable us to prove macroscopic laws from microscopic ones. But often we give a reductionist explanation by merely postulating microscopic laws. In such cases, the macroscopic laws resulting from microscopic laws are unproven. They are not less hypothetical than the premises from which they arise. Despite its hypothetical nature, such an explanation can still have great scientific value if it dispels some of the mystery of complexity.

As long as we do not know the composition of a complex system nor any analytic explanation of its behavior, it remains very mysterious, even if it is familiar. Sometimes we know from experiments laws that enable us to anticipate effects, reactions, results, but these laws themselves remain very mysterious. Even if we know how to justify them, by the correctness of the expectations to which they lead, or by proving them from other well justified observation laws, they do not lose their mystery. Only analytic explanations can dispel some of the mystery (but they often lead to other mysteries, since the microscopic laws themselves must be explained, unless it is assumed that the parts are elementary). As long as one does not have an analytic explanation of a law of behavior of a complex system, there is a lack of explanation. The ideal of analytic knowledge, to explain everything from their parts, is always adopted when we try to understand complex systems. If it is not satisfied, it asks to be satisfied. This ideal is a driving force for scientific discovery because we sometimes find the explanations we seek.

To give oneself an ideal of analytic knowledge for empirical sciences amounts to asserting that matter is intelligible, that the observable universe can be explained with theories, that our theories need only a few principles that determine the properties of parts or elements, assemblies, and their interaction laws, to explain the behavior of all complex systems we observe. It is not clear a priori that such an ideal can be really achieved. Why should matter be intelligible? This is doubtful. Nothing requires it to be so. Is not the universe far more than anything we can think of?

We give ourselves an ideal of intelligibility and sometimes of beauty as evaluation criteria simply by a voluntary choice. We want our theories, empirical, ethical, or abstract, to have simple and general principles. We want them to enable us to understand complex systems from their constituents. And we want them to be beautiful, as far as possible.

The knowledge of endsEdit

An agent can explain his behavior simply by saying what he wants and the means he has gathered. Even if he does not explain it, we can understand his behavior by putting ourselves in his place, imagining that we want what he wants and believe what he believes. If we succeed in simulating internally the chain of actions, their motivations and the beliefs that accompany them, we can explain his behavior in the same way as himself (Weber 1904-1917).

The understanding of ends enables us to explain the behavior of humans and many animals. To explain what they do we only need to know what they want and the means they give themselves. Understanding ends is fundamental to preparation for action and learning, because we learn to act by understanding the purposes of others.

The understanding of ends enables us to explain also the functioning of an artificial system. We understand it when we understanding inventors or engineers who have imagined the ends, the functions, that the system can accomplish. Explanation by ends is equally fundamental for the science of the functioning of living bodies, physiology (Aristotle, Parts of animals). In this field, the validity of explanation by ends is a priori very surprising, because there is no engineer who has drawn the plans of living bodies. How can the organs of living beings have ends if there is no inventor who has imagined them?

The darwinian theory of evolution by natural selection suffices to dispel this mystery. Living forms are naturally selected by their ability to achieve their ends (growth, survival and reproduction). If their organs do not fulfill their functions, they do not leave descent. The accumulation of small variations in each generation and the selection of those that are the most functional are sufficient to explain the appearance of all these living forms, so sophisticated that they often go far beyond the understanding of engineers (Darwin 1859, Dawkins 1997).

The understanding of ends is of fundamental importance for ethical knowledge, since we learn to evaluate actions, behaviors and ends by knowing ourselves and others as agents who want and who give themselves ways.

Evaluation of ethical knowledgeEdit

An ethical knowledge is used to evaluate actions. But it must itself be evaluated. We do not want any evaluation system. We want a good ethical knowledge. Should we then design an infinite succession of ethical knowledge, the first evaluates the actions, the second evaluates the first, and so on?

The adoption of an ethical knowledge, the approval or disapproval of ethical principles are themselves actions. In approving an ethical principle we act on ourselves because we determine our will. It is indeed an action because we change reality. We are different before and after the approval of a principle.

An ethical knowledge is general. It is used to evaluate all actions (or sometimes all of a certain category). An ethical knowledge can therefore be used to evaluate ethical knowledge. There is no infinite regress of ethical knowledge because the same knowledge is used in the evaluation of all actions, including the approval of ethical principles. In fact, whatever wisdom we adopt, that we should honor it is always a principle of wisdom. An ethical knowledge always evaluates itself positively. When we adopt an ethical principle we are not only committed to honor all the actions that the principle explicitly asks us to honor, we are also committed to honor the principle itself and its adoption.

Some ethical principles explicitly provide evaluation criteria for ethical principles. For example, «You will recognize them by their fruits» is an ethical principle which is used to evaluate ethical principles, it can even be used to evaluate itself: it is a good principle because it produces fruits every time it enables us to recognize a good principle. Of course such evidence can not convince a skeptic who doubts the principle. But it shows that the evaluation of principles does not lead to an infinite regress.

We use our ethical knowledge to evaluate all other ethical knowledge. The more an ethical knowledge is consistent with ours, the more we honor it. The more it contradicts us and the more we despise or hate it. When we adopt an ethical knowledge we automatically find ourselves in disagreement with those who have chosen an ethical knowledge that contradicts us. As disagreements often escalate into violent conflicts, the diversity of ethical knowledge contributes to a perpetual war between humans.

Is there not a universal ethical knowledge on which all people could agree? A universal ethical truth? If such truth existed it would also be the true evaluation of ethical knowledge, since a bad ethical knowledge is poorly evaluated when it evaluates itself. But many ethical knowledge developed by human beings usually claim to be precisely this universal truth, and they often contradict each other. This leads to doubt the possibility of such a truth. It could be just a dream, a kinf of mind wandering. Some evidence suggests, however, that we must doubt this doubt.

An ethical knowledge is a part of a know-how-to-live (the sum of all the skills that enable one to live). Its value depends on the life in which it is integrated. If for example such an ethical knowledge directs us towards unattainable goals, because we do not have the appropriate skills, it is automatically disqualified because it does not help us to live well, because it tends rather to prevent us from living well.

We often conceive ethics or morality as a system of prohibitions which tends to limit the scope of our actions, to reduce the space of possibilities. But quite the opposite is true. Teaching us what is desirable, ethical knowledge makes us see opportunities that we would not have thought of otherwise. And giving us rules for action, it increases our capabilities, because there are many goals that require discipline to be achieved.

An ethical knowledge is always subject to the test of life. It proves itself, it shows its value in helping us to live well and making us discover good ways of living. Thus we experience the truth of the ideal. Dreams are among the paths to the truth, because they make us discover what does not yet exist. The truth of dream is not nonsense.

An ethical knowledge is evaluated from the behaviors it evaluates. There is indeed a circle, but it is not vicious. An ethical knowledge develops naturally so, by a kind of dialogue between ideal and experience.

All human beings naturally have the same basic needs (Maslow 1954): nutrition, protection against the weather, health, safety, integration in a community that respects us and recognizes us, to love oneself, love others and be loved by them, to accomplish oneself ... An ethical knowledge that collides with the satisfaction of these needs is automatically disqualified because they are necessary to live well. Basic needs thus determine an universal ethical knowledge, which can be recognized by all human beings. To assess this knowledge as a universal truth is simply to say that we really have these basic needs. Such knowledge is not enough to decide all ethical issues, but it is always a foundation from which we can reason.

An ethical knowledge can lead to self-destruction, if it makes us despise what we need to live. We then witness the sad spectacle of a will which annihilates itself, because of poor ethical knowledge. The will must want itself, it must want to continue to exist, it shall not want its own destruction. The spirit must be for the spirit (Hegel 1830). This principle is a universal ethical truth. It can not be reduced to a mere selfishness because our basic needs are often social needs. When we are united we want the will of others to continue to exist. To want the spirit is not only to want oneself selfishly, it is also and above all to want the society to remain a good place for the spirit to live.

A common misinterpretation of Darwin's theory says that natural selection necessarily imposes selfishness. Since they are in competition with each other, living beings would have to always promote their individual interests over those of others. The most important would be to have claws and teeth. But this interpretation ignores the pervasiveness of cooperation and solidarity in the living world. Like many animals we have solidarity instincts. Believing that selfishness is a law of nature is a grave mistake. Naturally, we need to stand together to accomplish ourselves.


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