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A Little Knowledge Can Be a Dangerous Thing

I had a conversation with my eldest son, Michael, some time ago. We discussed: “Why can’t knowledge be used to make things in society work better?” This question of my son’s got me to thinking about what is knowledge and what is the difference between knowledge of nature and knowledge of human affairs. In philosophy, this is called epistemology — the study of knowledge.

I was very gratified that Michael was interested in this subject. And, although when I studied philosophy in University I wondered whether there was any point in it, my son’s question made me realize how important the consequences of a particular epistemology can be.

Consider the case of “self-fulfilling prophecies”. I believe that my neighbour is a witch. I accuse her in public. She denies it, but under the law, the way to ascertain if someone is a witch is to torture them (“Truth by Ordeal”). It’s no surprise that the majority of the accused will confess after being tortured. And the publicity of the case leads some people to see more witches, just by the power of suggestion. Soon more people confess to being witches and now we’re into a full blown witch hunt.

Eventually the witch hunts ended but not before tens of thousands of women were burned at the stake. This happened about five hundred years ago. The interesting thing here is that the fact that witches with supernatural powers don’t exist didn’t stop Europe from seeing more and more witches. In other words, beliefs can be self-reinforcing even though they are false.

Consider another case closer to home. Banks don’t actually have as much money as people deposit in them. They create money by loaning out multiples of their cash deposits. If most depositors believe that there is enough money, then there is enough money. And as a consequence, each individual will have no trouble withdrawing their whole deposit if they want to. But if enough people believe that there isn’t enough money, they will make a run on the banks, banks will close down and people will not be able to withdraw their money. So there won’t be enough money.

Or, if enough people believe that money is worth less today than it was yesterday, they will delay paying back their loans, they will spend their money as fast as they can, the money supply will expand and prices will rise. So money will be worth less. Again, a self-fulfilling prophesy.

Our beliefs about ourselves effect our actions. Author George Soros calls this “reflexivity”. That means that human behaviour is not independent from our knowledge of it. Why is this important? Because it means that the correspondence theory of truth does not always work. A statement is true if it corresponds to reality. I’m sitting on a chair. This corresponds to the truth. No problem. But what if our thoughts change reality? Then the idea of “correspondence” is problematic because thoughts and realities are not independent of each other. It’s when you get into things like witches and money that correspondence to reality is a problem because what we believe about witches or money effects their reality.

We can assume that the correspondence theory of truth works for natural science but not always for the social sciences because of the principle of reflexivity. Thus comes the idea that the way we study social science must be different in kind from the way we study nature. Of course we go on acting as if the truth of our statements about humans corresponds to reality but we have a lot harder time knowing for sure. What we believe could just be a self-fulfilling prophecy. And the stronger we believe it the more self reinforcing it becomes.

If knowledge must be certain, this implies that those with access to knowledge have a monopoly on the truth. Any political system based on this will be rigid and closed to change or improvement. This is the religious, tribal, and totalitarian approach to knowledge and it leads to a closed society. That’s why epistemology is so important. If we believe that knowledge is fallible then we have to be at least open to other points of view and open to change in our views. And if knowledge is imperfect that means that there is always room for improvement.

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