Subsuming Epistemology: How Do We Know Anything?

Jan 12, 2012 Posted Under: epistemology

Epistemology is the study of knowledge and justified belief.

Stephen M. Barr, in Modern Physics and Ancient Faith, distinguishes between science and religion on the basis that faith in a religious dogma is a justifiable method of acquiring knowledge of the universe, at the same time claiming that science’s corresponding belief is that only knowledge based on observable material aspects of the universe is justifiable. The obvious difficulty with the notion that religious dogma could be valid is that anyone can claim having received a religious dogma directly from its author, and many do, resulting in mutually conflicting and untestable religions.

I contend that these discussions are doomed to frustrate their participants because they’re overlooking an even more basic limit on knowledge — those inherent in the communication protocols of the knowledge seekers.  In order to have any discussion at all, we must have agreed on a discussion protocol, including the meanings of words and their assemblages into statements.

These agreements are the fundamental transactions and basis of all our interactions.  And every interaction is a negotiation, a request for an agreement.

I am reminded of reports of how the Korean War peace talks couldn’t begin until agreements could be reached on the shape of the table and the seating arrangements, since those fundamental bits of protocol had different cultural importance and meaning to the various participants.

Useful Knowledge

I further contend that only what is agreed on the way to a mutually acceptable action is useful “knowledge”.  Similarly, a disagreement on the same proposition, will be un-useful, leading in the worst cases, to war.

The evolutionary impulses behind these conclusions are compelling.  The impulse to communicate is required to generate capability to cooperate in a larger venture, like food or sex.  The impulse to war arises naturally between groups perceiving resources too limited to sustain them both easily.  War is a “larger venture” requiring cooperation and therefore, communication.

So, the negotiation needed to achieve agreement on what gestures and sounds mean is at the heart of all our interactions.

Tracking the accumulation of these agreements as they evolve into larger agreements will be an entirely useful area of research.  Instrumenting these agreement processes with numbers of participants at every level will be most illuminating, also leading to participant trustability estimates.

What should we call this new science of agreements?  The agreements seem like the DNA of human interactions.

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