Deep Knowledge: The Chamber of Sticky Notes (Part 3 of 4)

Photo by Startaê Team on Unsplash

I’ve been looking for the solid truths of the world, things I can know without a doubt. And yet, I’ve discovered that–though I don’t doubt the existence of the truly real–to say that the real exists is a very different thing than to say I understand the real.

You may have seen the movie version of a command center: panels of screens, some with scrolling data, others with plots of missile trajectories or disease outbreaks, and yet others awaiting instructions (authenticated by iris scan or voice-print, of course) from the Very Important People. They know what they need to know. They have eyes in the sky, NSA taps into Internet chokepoints, radar, real-time data feeds. They know how to respond, and they do so decisively. It’s a very satisfying story.

The command center of my psyche is a bit different. Behind a sliding bookcase, at the end of a tunnel that glows with candlelight and smells of incense, is a windowless room. It’s anything but gloomy, with warm wood walls and abundant cushions for reclining. There’s a desk and a comfortable chair…and on every wall, a chaos of sticky notes.

“I should eat more protein; p=0.6.”. “Cycling even in horrible air is still a net positive for health; p=.55”. “John is generally trustworthy; p=.95”. “Killing a person without provocation is morally wrong; p=.999”. “I should not give to beggars by default; p=.5”.

You might know the story of Erwin Schrödinger’s hypothesized cat, who lived (or died) in a box with a flask of poison and a switch to open the flask (or not) based on the randomness of radioactive decay. Until the box is opened, says Schrödinger’s interpretation of quantum theory, the cat is both dead and alive. Aside from the flask-of-poison thing, the cat has a wonderful life. It will not, it cannot, commit to so simple a thing as being either alive or dead!

Unlike the cat, I’m often forced to decide. I’m often forced to act. And those decisions are never perfect ones, based on a perfectly clear view of reality. I’m forced to make a provisional decision, a guess, and then move forward from it. But the guess might be wrong!

Some guesses “feel” more confidently right than others. I really don’t think I’ll conclude anytime soon that, well, execution by flaying is after all an appropriate action in some cases; my opinion on the subject is really rather firm. But my sense that “it will probably take about an hour to go across town” has much less confidence attached–neither half an hour nor an hour and a half would be completely shocking. Both of these have subjective probabilities of being right; the “no gruesome killings rule” with near certainty, the travel-time expectation with about 50% confidence. And yet, I sometimes have to act on an assumption that’s as likely to be wrong as right–or even, sometimes, on a “best out there, but probably wrong” one.

The problem is, the inability to see perfectly inheres in being human. In other words, flawed perception and flawed reasoning is guaranteed. (If you haven’t had your fill of umlauts, go check out Kurt Gödel for one lens on this.) In such a situation, the question is not whether you’re wrong, it’s a question of how wrong you are. And then, to act in the way that seems least wrong, with no guarantees that it is indeed the least-wrong way. And so, my sticky-noted beliefs have probabilities attached. They might be wrong. Even the probabilities might be wrong. But life often demands answers, and the sticky notes provide them–acknowledging that they’re imperfect, that I’m imperfect, and that I can truly, indubitably, know almost nothing at all. To claim otherwise is to assert my perfection, which I’m far from ready to do.

“Sticky notes” aren’t just for insignificant issues. Often, the “wishy-washiness” of a sticky-note isn’t because its subject doesn’t matter; it’s because it does, and the issues are far too important and too complex to risk “locking into” a wrong position. And yet, since many situations demand “answers”, the sticky notes are there: acknowledgments that my understanding is certainly incorrect and incomplete to some degree, and that each of my “answers” is provisional, and subject to change if I find a better one.

Among the sticky notes, there is one small cluster of metal etchings. That’s a cluster of things I simply choose, completely indefensibly, to hold as true. (I don’t pretend to have moved beyond the smallest foothills of understanding it, but Michael Polanyi’s work on “personal knowledge”, as filtered through the first part of Lesslie Newbigin’s Proper Confidence, was nevertheless a game-changer for me on this, an argument that a set of some such indefensible commitments is essential to communicating about any kind of knowledge.)

Each of my sticky notes helps me engage the world without collapsing into indecision. Each one reflects the reality of my cognition: three pounds of soft tissue trying to grasp something far vaster than itself, with the guarantee that its perceptions will be incomplete and incorrect, and that their processing will be influenced greatly by the “noise” within and without.

Sometimes, in the windowless comfort of the Chamber, there’s an inexplicable whisper of wind. The notes on the wall rustle; occasionally, one falls to the floor and I can’t quite figure out where to reattach it. And I rest, and I read, and I sort, and I update my scribbled portals to the world.

Deep Knowledge is a four-part series in progress, in which I ramble concerning the nature of knowledge, our capacity to handle it, and our orientation to it. Parts include:

11 thoughts on “Deep Knowledge: The Chamber of Sticky Notes (Part 3 of 4)”

  1. Loved reading this, Joel. This sounds so much like the inside of my command center as well. But my sticky note for unprovoked homicide has two more nines than yours. Also my command center isn’t candlelit and incensed (There is a small fireplace. For the old sticky notes).

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  2. The small cluster of metal etchings. They intrigue me very much indeed. They are held “completely indefensibly.” This always left me blank. Perhaps just a different kind of defense? But maybe you will say more next post? I’m somewhat familiar with Polanyi’s thinking, but not so much Newbigan. Been planning to remedy that.

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    1. And…here’s where I have to offer a disclaimer: Reading Newbigin’s take on Polanyi felt like an epiphany for me, but I’m really far from understanding it well enough even to summarize well. But, my basic, personal take-away was that my own view of the world, some form of Christian theism, was at least not based on more intellectually ridiculous a foundation than any other view of the world (the strongest competitors, for me, being Dawkins et al). That’s hardly the sort of resounding Good News one proclaims from the rooftops, but it was the permission I needed as an uncomfortable theist who wanted to believe, but not at the cost of choosing the less-true over the more-true. 🙂

      Whether valid or not, I took this as permission to take God as a given. Sure, I think the existence of a supreme being is plausible, even likely, given other evidence and lines of reasoning–but ultimately, I don’t think it’s possible to prove or to disprove God’s existence, or nature, in a “universally valid” sense. (As far as I know, I can’t even indubitably prove to anyone else that I exist!) I understood Polanyi to say that all communication requires on a shared framework, which at some level relies on shared assumptions that cannot be proven–which rings quite intuitively true for me.

      And so, there are a number of things I simply hold to be true. I don’t know them to be true in an absolute sense; my beliefs on the relevant matters may be wrong. But in a world where I’m incapable of fully and accurately perceiving “deep reality”, I’m forced to choose between having no places of stability and having some such places. I choose the latter. Even though I can’t guarantee–to myself or others–that those places are anchored to deep truth, they aren’t arbitrary, but are based on my subjective understanding of what “the grain of the universe”, as I experience it, implies about deep reality.

      In one sense, I don’t know that these metal-inscribed thoughts are true. I believe they could be wrong, and likely are wrong to some degree. But, despite not knowing that they’re true, I’m generally trusting that they’re true, acting and reasoning on the assumption that they are. And subjectively, on a typical day, I think they are generally true. Part of this does reach into the next post: if one grants that there is a deep reality, and grants that there is a being with the capacity to directly understand that reality, it’s not too huge a leap to assume that that being, if they wished, could influence my subjective perceptions to have some sort of alignment with “real reality”. But perhaps this will be further explored later. (I suspect that the next post will experience substantial re-writing from its current version, as did this one soon before publication.)

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  3. Yes, the shared framework of assumptions is a significant aspect of what I know of Polanyi. “Tacit Knowledge” was the writing of his that I am familiar with, where a main idea is that in all knowing there is something actively doing the knowing, which is not itself known in that moment of knowing (thus it is ‘tacit’), and any ‘retreat into the mind’ to know that knower can only happen as the action a further back knower, irreducibly tacit. Because all knowing involves that sort of unknown, all knowing involves commitment. The other half of this fascinating model is that commitment involves knowing–just as knowing is deeply ‘inner’, so it is broadly extendable–the body of tacit knowledge can grow and allow us to be present in others and to ‘touch’ things at a distance. Knowing is something done by a center within a body.

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    1. Wow. As I said, I’ve only approached the start of the foothills of Polanyi. But my appetite is thoroughly whetted. Sounds deeply intriguing!

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  4. Can we distinguish between provability and defensibility? I would say that the existence of God cannot be proven (at least in some ordinary senses of the term) but that it can be rationally defended.
    I lean toward coherentism and away from foundationalism. In coherentism, fundamental truths are not themselves supported on deeper truths, but mutually support one another–it is the coherence gained by assuming the proposition that justifies it. We tend to think of proof as supporting things on deeper things, but this idea of verticality is ultimately a metaphor (and what isn’t), and the model does not work everywhere.
    So if “proof” means support from below, then yes, some things are necessarily unprovable, because naturally there cannot always be another thing below. And while a necessary being needs no ontological support, it does need epistemic support–a necessary being is not necessarily believed in. I think this ‘epistemic support’ is the coherence of worldview which arises when the assumption is positively considered.

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    1. I’m definitely playing at or beyond the edges of my circle of competence here, but I guess my current circle is what I currently have. 🙂 I think our models share at least a family resemblance. I tend to think in terms of “plausibility”, which I think maps to at least roughly to your coherence approach. To oversimplify, a model with a lot of serious internal contradictions seems less plausibly “on the right track” than a model with fewer and less serious contradictions. And I think coherence captures well why one seems better than another. So yes, it does grant a basis for comparison between ideas, and could allow “defense” of being relatively better based on a fixed evaluative criterion, even in the absence of proof from foundations. It’s a useful distinction, though I somewhat fear that even our rules for coherence might evaporate if we look at them too closely.

      And…I confess that my facility with philosophical vocabulary and tools is fairly limited, and I’m having a bit of trouble tracking with the portion beginning “And while a necessary being”. I think the last sentence is essentially saying that assuming the existence of God tends to result in a more coherent worldview than the alternatives and thus is a relatively strong contender for “being true”. But then, working backward, I founder on the definition of “necessary”, asking “necessary for what”. I suspect my confusion relates to the slippery grasp I have on the subject of ontology, for which I mostly just have (small) mental bucket that labels it as the branch of philosophy dealing with “what is”. And so, perhaps my core confusion comes from “a necessary being needs no ontological support”. If you have the energy to do just a bit of handholding, I’d find it helpful!

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      1. Hey! Just now saw this… Let’s say slow conversations are probably higher quality converations.
        “though I somewhat fear that even our rules for coherence might evaporate if we look at them too closely.” Good point. It is quite likely. I haven’t yet pushed there very hard. (I’m with you in being a philosophically untrained amateur, making it up as I go.) But what kind of thing would these rules for coherence be? Would they themselves only need to be justified by coherence? And, if the primary questions for which we are wanting foundation are already by definition the most basic questions (ie., “Am I real?”), perhaps those questions and answers are prior even to any questioning of the rules ‘supporting’ them. At some point we must turn the mind around and move outward, because inward is bottomless, and bottomlessly empty when divorced from the outward.
        As for the “ontological support.” Perhaps it was an attempt at an unneeded clarification, countering a possible objection to coherentism. One could argue against the critique of foundationalism which argues “there can’t always be another thing underneath,” by remembering that God is, by definition, not a contingent being needing support, but rather a necessary being. One might say then that belief in his being needs no support either–since reality has an ‘unfounded foundation,’ the knowing of reality is likewise founded. I think this is a very common equation people make, and I don’t claim to have seen through it fully, but it seems false to me. It’s an equation of ontology with epistemology. The experiential fact is that belief in God is not ‘necessary’ in this philosophical sense– it is possible not to believe. The belief therefor needs some kind of support.

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  5. Is “holding a thing to be true” in spite of a lack of certainty equivalent to “choosing to act/live as if it were true”? Isn’t it true that we can choose actions in a way in which we cannot choose beliefs?

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