The Book of General Ignorance by John Lloyd and John Mitchinson

Someone gave me this book, but I don’t remember when. It’s been sitting in the smallest room in the house for quite a while, because it’s the kind of book that’s best to dip into. It consists of more than 200 questions that you might think you know the answer to, but probably don’t.

So the first question is: “What’s the name of the tallest mountain in the world?” Mount Everest, you say? Well, actually, according to the current convention, the “tallest” mountain in the world is Hawaii’s Mauna Kea. It boasts the greatest distance between its top and bottom (33,465 feet). It just so happens that its bottom is in the ocean. Mount Everest, on the other hand, is the “highest” mountain, measured from sea level up to its summit (at 29,029 feet).

It’s that kind of book.

One more:

“What shape did medieval people think the earth was?” The authors don’t actually say. What they do say is that hardly anyone thought it was flat. The idea that Columbus was trying to prove the earth was round most likely originated in a book by Washington Irving written in 1828. Ten years later, an Englishman seriously tried to prove it was round. The subtitle of his book was “A Description of Several Experiments Which Prove That the Surface of the Sea is a Perfect Plane and That the Earth Is Not a Globe”. Columbus thought it was pear-shaped and about a quarter of its actual size. (Back around 200 B.C., a very smart man named Eratosthenes of Cyrene got within 10% of the actual circumference.)

Ok, just one more: “What is the loudest thing in the ocean?” This one I found hard to believe. The blue whale produces the loudest noise of any individual animal in the ocean or on land, but the loudest natural noise of all is made by shrimp. So-called “snapping shrimp” live in tropical and subtropical waters. Trillions of them will get together and snap their single over-sized claw all at once. The sound they make has been measured at 246 decibels (the equivalent of 160 decibels in the air, or louder than a jet plane taking off). The sound of this “shrimp layer” can damage a submarine’s sonar and make dents in a ship’s propeller. Really?

Yes, it’s that kind of book.


Knowledge: A Very Short Introduction by Jennifer Nagel

This entry in the Oxford University Press series of “very short introductions” was recommended on a popular philosophy blog, so I gave it a try. It deals with questions like these:

What is knowledge? What is the difference between just thinking that something is true and actually knowing that it is? How are we able to know anything at all?

This isn’t a general introduction to epistemology, but since that branch of philosophy is also known as “the theory of knowledge”, it comes pretty close. The author doesn’t provide her own answers to the questions above. Instead, she explains the answers given by various philosophers from ancient times to the present. There are chapters on skepticism and the debate between rationalists and empiricists, but the more interesting discussion begins with what’s known as the “Gettier problem”.

Most philosophers have accepted the idea that a belief counts as knowledge if it is both true and justified. Truth isn’t enough. I might believe there are precisely 11 coins in your pocket, and you might actually have 11 coins in your pocket, but unless I have a good reason for believing there are 11, and not some other amount, I don’t really know you have 11. I’m just making a lucky guess. For me to know you have 11 coins, I need a reason for thinking that’s how many there are, e.g. I saw you empty your pocket and then put exactly 11 coins back in.

A philosopher named Edmund Gettier wrote a short paper in 1963 that challenged the standard idea that knowledge is the same as true, justified belief. He argued that a belief can be very well-justified and also quite true, but not count as knowledge. For example, I might believe you own a Chevrolet, since you bought my Chevrolet a while back. Then, this morning, I noticed that you drove that same Chevrolet to work. So it’s reasonable for me to believe you own a Chevrolet. Most people would say I know you own one.

But what if you secretly sold your Chevrolet to someone else yesterday, and the buyer said you could borrow it for the day. Furthermore, what if you used the money you got from selling your old Chevrolet yesterday to buy a new one last night? You do, in fact, own a Chevrolet, and I have very good reasons to believe you do, but the Chevrolet you own isn’t the one I saw you drive into the parking lot. Do I actually know you still own a Chevrolet or am I merely making a well-founded but lucky guess? My belief that you own a Chevrolet is true, and justified, but, according to Gettier (and many other philosophers), I don’t actually know you own one. For all I know, you could have sold your Chevrolet and bought a Ford last night, and I’d still be convinced you owned a Chevrolet. It just so happens you bought another Chevrolet, which makes my belief that you own one true, but I’m ignorant of the true situation. I don’t know you still own a Chevrolet. I merely assume you do. And my very reasonable assumption just happens to be true.

Philosophers have been analyzing Gettier’s article and offering ways around it for years, but there is still no general agreement as to what knowledge is. Nor is there general agreement about the other questions Prof. Nagel asks. Personally, I think it’s almost impossible to find simple answers to traditional philosophical questions. That’s why the questions have lingered so long. One reason is that philosophers too often try to find “the answer”, arguing that something like knowledge amounts to X or Y, when the best answer is that X, Y and Z, as well as A, B and C, all capture aspects of the problem they’re working on.

So, I recommend Knowledge: A Very Short Introduction, especially if you find topics like the Gettier problem interesting. It’s a good summary of some key issues in the theory of knowledge, although you’ll probably be left with more questions than answers.

How Did This Happen Anyway?

Understanding how you got into a bad situation can be helpful. Michael Tomasky offers assistance in an article called “President Trump Is What Happens After Republicans Spend Decades Rebranding Knowledge as Elitism and Ignorance as Bliss”:

There’s no doubt that it’s a liberal reflex to sometimes make fun of conservatives for not knowing things. And yeah, some liberals do that in a superior and supercilious tone.

But what’s happened in this country over the last, oh, 40 years or so is that in our political discourse, it has become far, far worse to make fun of someone for not knowing some basic historical fact than it is to not know the fact. And that is absurd.

I’m sorry. By which I mean, I’m not remotely sorry: It is worse—plainly and unambiguously worse—to be ignorant of basic history than it is to know that history and be a little insufferable about knowing it. A civilization that has concluded that the latter is worse is a civilization that is valuing attitude and posture over fact, and that is precisely the corkscrewed value system gave us a cretin like Trump in the first place.

When the conservative counter-offensive really kicked in, back in the 1970s, conservatives who wanted to dramatically remake and reorder American society knew they had a big job in front of them. All kinds of presumptions about how life and society worked were lodged deep in people’s minds. Many—most, indeed perhaps nearly all—of those assumptions were kind of liberal. The Republicans caused the Depression. Roosevelt saved the country. Unions helped us prosper in the postwar era. Science was noble, and experts were to be venerated. Religion was to remain private. The generals got us into an unwinnable war in Vietnam. And so on.

These were all things that the broad majority of Americans believed. They were also, well, you know, true. Republicans did wreck the country in 1929, FDR did save it, experts had expertise that was of value. Conservatives had to get Americans to un-believe all that—to hate unions and mistrust experts, to agree that liberals lost the Vietnam War.

That effort involved two prongs. The first and more obvious was inventing their own set of “facts” whereby, say, Roosevelt prolonged the Depression. The second prong was the discrediting of those who continued to trumpet the old liberal version of reality, and the sharpest knife in that drawer was by far the charge of elitism.

Once Republicans figured that out, the discrediting got simple. All you had to do to puncture someone’s argument was call that person an elitist. It often didn’t matter whether that someone was factually correct. In fact, being factually correct was all the more damning! Knowing the difference, say, between the Lippmann and Dewey points of view was evidence itself that one was too dependent on exterior knowledge, had no internal instincts on which to operate and base decisions.

Well, 40 years later, here we are. We finally have a president of the United States who is all gut, no knowledge. There are consequences to this. Our allies don’t like us. We’re starting trade wars with them that are ahistorical and ungrounded in fact. Trump’s going to Canada today for a G-7 meeting he has no desire to attend and where not much of anyone wants to see him. On the apparently upcoming North Korea meeting, Trump said Thursday, “I don’t think I have to prepare very much”….

So laugh when Trump blurts out some historical whopper. God knows we all need to laugh. But remember too—the fact that a man that ignorant is our president is the culmination (I hope, anyway) of a long attack on truth set in motion four decades ago that persuaded millions of Americans that knowledge is slavery and ignorance is indeed bliss.

I’d change that last sentence to say millions of Americans think knowledge is unnecessary, expertise is suspect and ignorance is comfortable, but that’s a mere quibble in the current crisis.

Fear of Knowledge: Against Relativism and Constructivism by Paul Boghossian

Boghossian is a professor of philosophy at New York University. This is a short, well-argued book, although its title is misleading. Its subject is doubt about knowledge or the dismissal of knowledge. The idea that anyone is afraid of knowledge is only mentioned once on the next to last page.

Boghossian’s main target is constructivism: the idea that “knowledge is constructed by societies in ways that reflect their contingent social needs and interests”. He points out that constructivism comes in different varieties. The benign version simply notes that we gather knowledge about topics we’re interested in or need to investigate. He is concerned with versions that lead people, often academics, to say that no group’s or culture’s beliefs are more valid or accurate than anyone else’s. From the epilogue:

There look to be severe objections to each and every version of constructivism about knowledge that we have examined. A constructivism about truth is incoherent. A constructivism about justification is scarcely any better. And there seem to be decisive objections to the idea that we cannot explain belief through epistemic reasons alone.

On the positive side, we failed to find any good arguments for constructivist views…. At its best, … social constructivist thought exposes the contingency of those of our social practices which we had wrongly come to regard as naturally mandated. It does so by relying on the standard canons of good scientific reasoning. It goes astray when it aspires to become a general theory of truth or knowledge. The difficulty lies in understanding why such generalized applications of social construction have come to tempt so many.

He believes that the appeal of constructivism is mainly political, although misguided:

Constructivist views of knowledge are closely linked to such progressive movements as post-colonialism and multiculturalism because they supply the philosophical resources with which to protect oppressed cultures from charges of holding false or unjustified views. [But] if the powerful can’t criticize the oppressed, because the central epistemological categories are inexorably tied to particular perspectives, it also follows that the oppressed can’t criticize the powerful.

Apparently, Boghossian doesn’t recognize the appeal of oppressed groups being on an equal footing with the powerful (“your views are merely a matter of perspective and no more valid than ours”). He concludes:

The intuitive view is that there is a way things are that is independent of human opinion, and that we are capable of arriving at belief about how things are that is objectively reasonable, binding on anyone capable of appreciating the relevant evidence regardless of their social or cultural perspective. Difficult as these notions may be, it is a mistake to think that recent philosophy has uncovered powerful reasons for rejecting them.

A Guide to Reality, Part 5

Alex Rosenberg, the author of The Atheist’s Guide to Reality, argues that “we should embrace physics as the whole truth about reality”. On the face of it, that’s a remarkable statement open to obvious challenges. 

Rosenberg, however, acknowledges that parts of physics are relatively speculative, unsettled or even inconsistent. It’s the solidly-confirmed part of physics that he’s talking about, the part of physics that is “finished” and “explains almost everything in the universe – including us”. What he’s really claiming, therefore, is that settled physics is the whole truth about reality. 

But is settled physics actually true? Philosophers disagree about what science is, what truth is and, not surprisingly, how close science gets to the truth, but I agree with Rosenberg that settled physics seems to be true. The predictions of special relativity, for example, appear to be 100% correct. (This isn’t to deny that some settled physics might become unsettled one day.) As evidence of the reliability of physics, Rosenberg points out how precise some predictions are: “quantum electrodynamics predicts the mass and charge of subatomic particles to 12 decimal places”. Those predictions are “true” in any reasonable sense of the word, even if physicists eventually refine their predictions to even more decimal places.

Some philosophers and scientists don’t accept Rosenberg’s “scientific realist” view, however. They think science is merely a tool that allows us to get things done. Questions like whether electrons or other theoretical entities really exist as physics describes them are put aside, since they’re viewed as unanswerable and irrelevant. Personally, I think physics allows us to get things done because it’s true, and furthermore it’s true in the sense that the objects and events physics describes are real, whether they’re observable or not. I believe that’s Rosenberg’s opinion too.

The second, more interesting challenge to Rosenberg’s view of physics concerns his claim that settled physics is the “whole” truth about reality. Clearly, there are mathematical and logical truths, which aren’t part of physics, but I take Rosenberg to be referring to truths about the universe and its contents, i.e. “real” stuff.

Nevertheless, if physics isn’t finished, it can’t be the “whole” truth. There must be some physical truths yet to be discovered (for example, what’s the story on dark matter and dark energy, two big things we know little about?). So Rosenberg’s claim that we should embrace settled physics as the whole truth about reality should really be understood as “settled physics is the only truth about reality we currently have”.  

Two obvious questions remain, however. Do we discover the truth from sciences other than physics? And do we learn anything true about the world even when we aren’t doing science?

Well, most people would agree that chemistry, for example, is a science that gets at the truth if any science does. Rosenberg clearly knows about chemistry, so why would he deny that chemistry is as valid as physics? The answer is that he thinks physics has shown there is nothing in the universe except fermions (e.g. quarks) and bosons (e.g. photons). From the idea that fermions and bosons are the only things that really exist, he concludes that all of reality can be explained in terms of those sub-atomic particles. After all, everything in the universe involves elementary particles being somewhere or doing something. Since physics is the science that tells us all about elementary particles and what they do, it’s the fundamental science. Using physics, therefore, we can explain chemistry, which we can then use to explain biology. Another way of saying this is that biology is reducible to chemistry and chemistry is reducible to physics. Knowledge of physics is the only knowledge that counts, because “the physical facts fix all the facts”, including chemical and biological facts.

The big problem with this point of view, aside from the difficulty in actually carrying out such reductions (replacing chemistry with physics, for example) is that fermions and bosons do such interesting things when they interact or are arranged in certain ways. Put some together and you have atoms; put some atoms together and you have molecules; put some of them together and you have cells. Once low-level particles are arranged as, for example, clouds or baseballs or trees, patterns or regularities in the behavior of these higher-level entities emerge. There are new facts to be learned.

If the universe were merely a collection of sub-atomic particles randomly scattered about, there wouldn’t be any chemical or biological facts for chemists and biologists to discover. But the particles in our universe aren’t randomly scattered. They’ve clumped together in various ways. Acquiring knowledge about these clumps (of which you and I are examples) is what chemists, biologists and other scientists (geologists, astronomers, psychologists, etc.) do. Rosenberg knows this, of course, but for some reason downplays it, choosing to focus on physics as the sine qua non of science. In virtue of its power and generality, physics should be embraced as the most fundamental science, but it clearly isn’t the only science worth embracing. 

The other question raised by Rosenberg’s scientism (or physics-ism) is whether we can add to our knowledge when we aren’t doing science at all. Rosenberg doesn’t seem to think so. Although science is built on observation, he is extremely skeptical about what can be learned by simply looking and listening. He also seriously mistrusts introspection. More on this later. 

Next: The 2nd Law of Thermodynamics and us.