How can we know?

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Type classification: this is an essay resource.
This essay is on Wikiversity to encourage a wide discussion of the issues it raises moderated by the Wikimedia rules that invite contributors to “be bold but not reckless,” contributing revisions written from a neutral point of view, citing credible sources -- and raising other questions and concerns on the associated '“Discuss”' page.

How can we know the truth?

How can anyone know the truth?[1]

Modern research has established that we can't.

No human can. When we are born, our brains are a mass of neurons receiving signals from eyes, ears, toes, etc., without knowing how to interpret those signals. Gradually those neurons make connections that allow us to obtain nourishment and say and do things that allow us to collaborate with others. However, those neuronal connections are more unique than fingerprints and change from one second to the next.

Deficiencies in our neuronal connections are illustrated by an experiment performed by psych profs years ago: They showed a video of a basketball game to a number of students and asked questions afterwards. Some of the students were asked to count passes. In the middle of the video, someone in a gorilla costume walked onto the middle of the court, beat its chest, and walked off. Many counting passes did not see the gorilla.[2]

This is mentioned in Kahneman (2011) Thinking, Fast and Slow, which also documents that

* Everyone thinks they know more than they do.

Moreover the major media everywhere exploit this to benefit those who control the money for the media.

Humility and Arrogance
How do you know that? I know the truth.
Help me understand. Why are you so stupid?
Show me your evidence. You treat me like I'm stupid.
We are the media we consume.
In armed conflict How can we protect ourselves
without escalation?
We must defend ourselves
by any means necessary.
Collateral damage
is unfortunate but necessary.

This suggests that we are all captives of the media we find credible. To the extent that this is accurate, it further suggests that people hold opinions different from ours primarily because they find different media credible.

This understanding suggests ways to get past this: In one-on-one interactions with others we might start by admitting we don't know anything for sure and asking others for their opinion. We need to find ways to have civil, mutually respectful conversations with others, even with those who say, "We don't talk politics." Everyone thinks they know more than they do, and the alternative to talking politics is killing people over misunderstandings.[3]

Wikipedia and other Wikimedia Foundation projects provide a model for how to get past this: Wikipedia, Wikiversity, and many other Wikimedia Foundation projects invite almost anyone to change almost anything. What stays tends to be written from a neutral point of view citing credible sources. Research on Wikipedia has found that the best Wikipedia articles tend to have the most diverse group of volunteer editors.[4]

To the extent that this can ben generalized, it suggests we can reduce the risk of war and accelerate progress on other issues if we can get more people talking about what they think they know, thinking about how they know anything, and teaching themselves and others to talk politics:

  • Don't get angry; get curious.[5]

See also[edit | edit source]

References[edit | edit source]

  • Daniel Kahneman (25 October 2011), Thinking, Fast and Slow, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, OCLC 706020998, OL 15992072W, Wikidata Q983718

Notes[edit | edit source]

  1. Nietzsche famously wrote that, "facts do not exist, only interpretations." Kahneman (e.g., 2011) led a thread of fundamental research that documented that everyone thinks they know more than they do, as discussed further in this article.
  2. Christopher Chabris; Daniel J. Simons (2010), The Invisible Gorilla: How Our Intuitions Deceive Us, Harmony Books, Wikidata Q28407574
  3. The Wikipedia article on "w:2021 United States Capitol attack" reports that some in the crowd wore shirts reading "MAGA civil war 2021", and some of their supporters discussed the possibility of a civl war on a Facebook group.
  4. Feng Shi; Misha Teplitskiy; Eamon Duede; James A. Evans (29 November 2017), The Wisdom of Polarized Crowds (PDF), arXiv:1712.06414, doi:10.1038/S41562-019-0541-6, Wikidata Q47248083. See also w:Reliability of Wikipedia.
  5. This model invites us to project humility: If we admit that our knowledge is limited, it makes it easier for others to do the same. This can reduce arrogance and political posturing. We can use more research on how best to do this, especially for discussions about potentially polarized or polarizing topics. One reference that might help is the classic book by w:Dale Carnegie on w:How to win friends and influence people. The Wikipedia article on that boook noted that it was first published in 1936 and has appeared in multiple editions, including one that appeared in 1981, twenty-six years after Carnegie died.