Wednesday, April 30, 2014

A Scientific Epistemology

Near the end of a long discussion of "privilege" on Facebook today, I said that there is an "epistemology" that offers something better than telling white males to shut up because their "privilege" is showing. "Epistemology" is the branch of philosophy that deals with truth and knowledge--what can we know and how do we know it? I argue that 21st century science provides a new way of thinking about "knowledge" that opens the door to a more deeply human way of thinking. Buckle your seat belts!
Philosophers have been talking about "ideas" for thousands of years, but scientists have only began to figure out the PHYSICAL nature of ideas in the last few decades. The science of "neural networks" has analyzed how nerves interact to enable creatures with brains to react and adapt. Engineers have been able to build devices that use this science to identify objects, make choices, and adapt to changes. While no artificial neural network is even remotely up to human cognition, the basic building blocks are increasingly well understood.
One may think of two nerve cells as defining a two-dimensional plane (scientists refer to this as a "phase space") in which all the possible states of these two nerves may be charted out. Add another nerve cell and you need a third dimension. Add more nerves and you need more dimensions--lots more. By the time you try to map out a human brain, you need 100 billion dimensions. This "hyperdimensional phase space" describes an ENORMOUS set of possible brain states. The WAY the nerves are connected affects the "shape" of this space, so one human mind may be described as a hyperdimensional space with a shape far more unique than any fingerprint.
Words, in this model, are individual locations within this space. When you read the word "banana," a set pf nerve cells start to signal. These signals can be "mapped" to one area in your unique phase space. The same word causes my nerve cells to start signalling, too, but of course the wiring in my brain is very different from yours. Your hundred billion cells are firing in one way; my hundred billion are firing in a different way; which adds up to TWO hundred billion cells firing at the same time in an even more complex pattern.
The key to my alternative epistemology is to knock down the barrier between brains. When two minds are both processing the same word ("banana" or anything else) they are both part of a TWO-hundred-billion dimensional phase space. Add another human and you add another hundred billion dimensions. In this model, a word, phrase, or statement "means" one particular point in a phase space made up of multiple minds.
That's the SCIENCE behind this new way of thinking about thinking. Let's look at the implications.
When I say "banana," you may visualize bright green fruits with bright yellow stickers under bright lights at the local Trader Joes, or mashed bits of slime all over your toddler's plastic tray, or browny-black shriveled lumps in the fruit bowl that you can't stand to touch long enough to throw away. That's a suburban American take on "banana." But a Central American farmer might see a whole world of different images--slimy slick banana shoots; huge scary spiders; cash on the table for the rent. "Banana" means the ENTIRETY of these images, not just MY experience, or yours, or the peasant farmer's.
The "check your privilege" approach that I challenged earlier today tends to discount the suburban view of "banana," preferring the viewpoint of the oppressed or under-represented. My approach, in my opinion, keeps the GOOD part of the "check your privilege" approach without silencing the "privileged" in the process. It is GOOD for the affluent white American male to expand his understanding of "banana" (or anything else), but he doesn't have to disclaim his OWN experience to do so.
Bananas aren't really all that exciting--as food or philosophy. How about a more controversial word, like "rhubarb"? Some people love rhubarb, others hate it. We tend to treat "I hate rhubarb" as a SUBJECTIVE statement, with no "right" or "wrong" content. But our neural network approach allows us to see that "I hate rhubarb" reveals a richer, truer grasp on reality. The hyperdimensional space made up of many different minds includes a point labeled "rhubarb" which powerfully connects with "I love rhubarb" AND with "I hate rhubarb." One might visualize this as two roads intersecting at one junction. This tells us something real and important about rhubarb--which the simpler characterization of "subjective" left out.
The point of this post, of course, is not to talk about fruits and vegetables, but about truth and justice. "Justice," like "rhubarb" is a word that seems "subjective." If "rhubarb" was an intersection of two roads in the hyperdimensional phase space made up of all our minds, "justice" is Grand Central Station--there are roads, rails, buses, and subways coming in from all directions at this point. That does not mean that "justice" is "subjective." It just means that it takes ALL our minds to grasp every nuance of the word.
Whether you agree with any of what I have outlined above, you'll find that I try to apply this philosophical approach to meaning, knowledge, truth in all my FaceBook posts. I am eager to hear what you have to say, even if you disagree with me--in fact, especially if you disagree with me!--because I view this FaceBook page as hyperdimensional phase space where our many minds create a single conversation. If you LIKE the way that conversation goes here, you might take a longer look at the REASON it goes this way.