Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Knowing Knowledge

There are lots of concepts which we take ourselves to understand clearly. However, philosophical reflection upon those concepts reveals that our initial grasp of them is infected with lots of inconsistencies. Philosophy has a bad reputation of unnecessarily making simple things more complex. However, philosophy through attempting to explain those apparently simple concepts don't only allow us to understand them better, but it also explains a lot about our own nature and the nature of the world we live in.

Attempting to define those concepts is not an easy job. Those attempts extend back to the time of Socrates and it might even extend for more ancient times. The failure of various accounts offered by so many distinguished philosophers to explain such concepts made lots of thinkers conclude that such attempts are destined to fail. Some argued that we should conceive it as a matter of fact that the human thought process lacks a concrete foundation. However, other philosophers, driven by their passion to understand, insisted on providing an explanation of those concepts. Their efforts didn't only prove worthy but in addition to explaining those concepts, they explained what went wrong with previous failed attempts. The persistence of contemporary philosophers like McIntyre, Putnam, Grayling and so many others allowed us to finally comprehend the foundation of the human thought process. At last, it seems more possible than ever that we can reach a solid ground upon which we can resolve our conflicts, to reach a better understanding of this world and to share a unified vision of what is most significant to us.

What is most fascinating about the most recent attempts to explain such basic concepts like knowledge, truth, reality, justice, love and so on is that the social nature of human beings was found to be so much significant in comprehending them. The efforts of various philosophers can be puzzled together to reveal that human conceptualization of those concepts was based on shared forms of social activities. Shared forms of social activities make up the foundation of the human thought process.

One of those concepts that I am so much fascinated with is the concept of knowledge. In this post, I will use this concept as an example to reveal what I have considered as the primacy of the social nature of human beings. I will not go into the details of the philosophical debate that went literally for centuries to explain the concept of knowledge. Instead, I will try to offer the most recent account explaining knowledge which was shaped by both philosophers and cognitive psychologists.

Human beings are characterized by some unique abilities. We are born in this world with an innate ability to distinguish objects present in our environment. Psychologists have realized that by the age of two, an infant gains the capacity not only to manipulate objects but to comprehend relationships of size and how such objects can fit together. In addition, infants at an even younger age can distinguish faces, facial expressions, and gestures such as pointing toward something. Certainly, our ability to distinguish various objects constituting this world is attained before our ability of linguistic conceptions of them. The cooperation among our various sense together with the basic construction of our brain allow us to acquire such an ability to distinguish and manipulate objects even if there is no language to aid in the formation of concrete conceptualization of them. This finding constitutes an evidence against the claim that perceiving is believing. A two year old child who can recognize his care takers from strangers and who can manipulate objects with an adequate level of dexterity is certainly perceiving those persons and those objects even though he is not capable of conceiving them or forming beliefs about them. He is not able to conceive them or to form believes about them because he still lacks a langue to constitute such beliefs.

Anyway, a child gains language skills by the age of four. This is a relatively very young age to acquire such a highly organized form of behavior. This remarkable ability to acquire language seems to have been allowed by long centuries of evolution. Through evolution, our left brain hemisphere has been shaped to develop Broca's area. The wiring among the neurons of Broca's area is taken to be what allow such a rapid process of language acquisition. The growth of a human being is taken to be generally similar to the process of evolution that created humans in the first place. However, the growth of language skill in today's world humans might not represent the process of evolution of language properly. There are evidences which suggest that it must have taken our ancestors so many years to develop a language that is much more simple compared to the complexity of any natural language existing today. The evolution of language must have progressed synchronously with the evolution of Broca's area in our left brain hemisphere to allow the rapid language acquisition seen in today's humans.

The evolution of language was allowed by our unique abilities to produce a wide variety of sounds together with our ability to imitate, to associate various stimuli together and to memorize. Primitive language consisted of simple names of objects. Our more primitive ability to distinguish objects and persons, together with our ability to respond to gestures allowed the creation of this primitive form of language. Even in its primitive form communication through language enhanced the survival of our ancestors to a great extent. It allowed them to avoid threats and to gain goods in a much more efficient way than before. Conformity to the rule of naming objects became crucial for the survival of any human being. It is important here to emphasize the importance of following rules. Any individual human being with the previous abilities I have just mentioned could have named any object with any name he might have came up with. However, such names in this case would be useless, since it deprives him from comprehending others and thus gaining the benefits of language. Any form of private language that is not shared by others is useless. Sharing rules of language plays, as I will explain later, a crucial part in explaining the primacy of the social nature of human beings, even when it comes to concepts such as knowledge.

Anyway, primitive languages continued to evolve. It extended beyond naming objects to explaining relations among those objects. Then, it continued to evolve to capture the rules of behavior of such objects. Here, there is an important point to mentions before explaining this next stage of language development. A pre-linguistic human don't only have the ability to distinguish and separate objects in the surrounding world, but in addition any individual human being has the ability to distinguish and separate himself from the rest of the world, even before acquisition of language. Psychologists have realized that an infant develops what they called the theory of mind before learning to use language. A pre-linguistic child, by the age of three, acts in a way that reflects his awareness that his own mental experience of the world doesn't necessarily coincide with the reality of this world. As a matter of fact, it is now argued that autistic children lack the capacity to develop this theory of mind. It is taken that is the reason why autistic children lack adequate communication skills. Having an ability to distinguish oneself from the rest of the world is again a mere capacity and not a conception in itself. A human can't conceptualize anything or become conscious of anything unless he becomes able to acquire beliefs about such a thing. Constitution of beliefs requires language. Therefore, before language acquisition, no conception of ones individuality can be achieved. However, the ability to distinguish one self from the rest of the world was crucial for the next stage of language evolution. Realizing that the world and I are two distinct things means realizing that the world extends beyond my initial scope of perception both in space and in time. Humans thus had the ability to recognize the extension of the world in both space and time even before being able to conceptualize space and time themselves. Names of objects together with the recognition that objects are related to each other and can be manipulated in different ways, in different spaces, and in different times allowed humans to develop a language that can describe events. This more complex form of language allowed further enhancement of survival chances. This more advanced form of language, again, had to follow rules so that it can be useful in communication.

The development of a complex form of language that can name objects or constituents of perceptual experience, and in addition can describe events, allowed humans to conceptualize objects and actions. With the concepts of objects and actions now available to human beings, they became able to construct an even more complex form of language. They have developed a language that can describe the basic form of behavior of the world and of other human beings. This form of language is not just an instrument anymore but it became what can be called a common folk scientific and psychological theory. It is important here to notice the importance of realizing that language can be thought of as some kind of a theory.

This unfamiliar claim can be clarified through the following example. A human being with a primitive form of language can name seasons such as summer and winter. With more complex forms of language, he can state that winter follows summer and that summer follows winter. However, in a language that constitutes a folk scientific theory, man can claim that there is such thing as a year in which one summer and one winter comes following each other. A year is not an object or a state of affair that can be experienced. Instead it is a linguistic concept that aids in describing the behavior of this world. As I have mentioned repeatedly, a language must have rules to allow communication. A language describing the behavior of the world or the behavior of others must have rules as well. Those rules must be recognized by all those who speak the same language so that they can gain the benefits of this language. Certainly, a language describing the repetitive expected behavior of the world and of others was of tremendous effect in enhancing our survival.

Many different languages have evolved in different parts of the globe. However, it is still one world that we share. That's why when it came to languages describing the behavior of the world; the rules of those different languages were more or less similar to each other. Encounters among different societies allowed further approximation of those rules. The folk scientific theories shared by early human societies were more or less alike. The rules used in this theory or in this more complex form of language made up the basis of human rationality.

It might be best to describe language in the way Quine did. He argued that language can be thought of as a spherical web of terms and statements. On the periphery of this sphere, there are the terms used to name objects and constituents of our perceptual experience. As we move inward, we first meet statements describing relationships among those object, constituents of perceptual experiences, time and space. Then we find statements describing events. More inward, we find statements describing the behavior of the world in a more abstract way. In the center of the sphere we find statements describing the rules of logic. How those statements are linked to each other is governed by the rules which the users of this language have agreed upon. It is those rules, which when conceptualized in abstract from any observational content, that constitute the logic in the center of the sphere of our language. It is this logic which represents our rationality in its purest possible sense.

This conception of language reveals that contrary to the common thought, human rationality is not something distinct from humans. It doesn't consist of laws which are enforced upon humans and which they might fail or succeed in realizing. Instead, rationality is formed of rules which were formed by humans themselves through centuries of mutual cooperation. Rationality evolved synchronously with the evolution of our language. It evolved as a requirement of having language as a useful instrument to enhance the survival of human beings. Rationality might have been developed as a requirement for having a language we can communicate with. However, this doesn't reduce the value of rationality. It is still required more than ever today. Without the rules of rationality or the rules of language use, knowledge can never be achieved.

Within the sphere of our language, we can construct various theories. We can link so many different statements together to construct many different theories. We can construct theories of science, religions, astrology, fiction and so much more. As the statements of this theory don't break any rule of language use and thus doesn't violate consistency, the theory can be considered as coherent. However, only one, among those many different theories we can construct, can amount to be considered knowledge. This is the theory which upon strict examination of the links between its constituent statements would not reveal any inconsistency. It is the theory which can include either any statement or its negation without any threat to consistency. It is the theory which can't be but accepted by any one of the language users who applies the rules of this language or the rules of the rationality. Finally, it is the theory which allows the achievement of the main goals for which language has been developed in the first place, namely survival and what ever else that we needed language for. A theory which can satisfy all those criteria is the theory that all of its statements can be called true and it is the theory which constitutes knowledge.

Up till now, no single theory has ever managed to satisfy all of those criteria. However, there is only one which seems more promising than others. It is the theory of science.

What is so revealing about conceptualizing knowledge in this way is to realize that knowledge is a shared social activity. What distinguish knowledge from fiction are rules inherent in our language which has been formed by our ancestors through very long time. Whenever, you attempt to acquire knowledge you have no choice but appealing to those rules.

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