There are no singular facts (Questions II)

There is more to explore here, and more thoughts to test. Let’s talk more about knowledge, and take two really simples examples. We believe we know the following.

(i) The earth is round.
(ii) Gravity is 9.8 G

Our model here is one of knowledge as a set of propositions that can be justified and defended as knowledge – they can be deemed true or false, and the sum total of that body of propositions is all we know. We can add to it by adding new propositions and we can change our mind by throwing old propositions out and replacing them with new ones.

This model is incredibly strong, in the sense that it is often confused with reality (at least this is one way in which we can speak of the strength of a model – the probability p that it is mistaken for reality and not seen as a model at all), but it is just a model. A different model would say that everything you know is based on a question and the answer you provide for it — just as Plato has Socrates suggesting. We can then reconstruct the example above in an interesting way.

(i) What is the best approximate geometrical form for representing the Earth in a simple model? The Earth is round.
(ii) What is gravity on the average on planet Earth? 9.8G.

Once you explicate the question that the proposition is an answer to you suddenly also realize the limits of the answer. If we are looking for the gravity on a specific place on earth, as the top of Mount Everest, the answer may be different. If we are looking for a more exact representation of the earth with all the topological geological data exact, the round model will not suffice. Articulating the question that the proposition you say you know is an answer to opens up the proposition and your knowledge and helps you see something potentially fundamental, if it holds for closer scrutiny.

There are no isolated facts.

Facts, in this new model, are always answers to questions, and if you do not know the question you do not really understand the limits and value of a fact. This is one alternative way of addressing the notion of “a half-life of facts” as laid out by Sam Arbesman in his brilliant book on how facts cease being facts over time. The reality is that they do not cease being facts, but the questions are asking change subtly over time with new knowledge.

Note that this model is in no way a defense for relativism. It is the opposite: questions and answers provide a strong bedrock on which we can build our world, and we can definitely say that not every answers suffices to answer a question. There are good and bad answers to questions (although more rarely bad questions).

So, then, when Obama says that we need to be operating our political discussion and debates from a common baseline of facts, or when senator Moynihan argued that you are entitled to your opinions but not your own facts, we can read them under the new model as saying something different.

Obama’s statement turns into a statement about agreeing on questions and what the answers to those questions are – and frankly that may be the real challenge we face with populism: a mismatch between the questions we ask and those the populists ask.

Senator Moynihan’s point is that if we agree on the questions you don’t get to invent answers – but your opinions matter in choosing what questions we ask.

So, what does the new model suggest? It suggests the following: you don’t have knowledge. There are no facts. You have and share with society a set of questions and answers and that is where we need to begin all political dialogue. These provide a solid foundation – an even more solid foundation – for our common polis than propositions do, and a return to them may be the long term cure for things like fact resistance, fake news, propaganda, polarization and populism. But it is no quick fix.

Strong claims, but interesting ones – and ones worthy of more exploration as we start digging deeper.

Socratic epistemology, Hintikka, questions and the end of propositional logic (Questions I)

The question of what knowledge is can be understood in different ways. One way to understand it is to focus on what it means to know something. The majority view here is that knowledge is about propositions that we can examine from different perspectives. Examples would include things like:

  • The earth is round.
  • Gravity is a force.
  • Under simple conditions demand and supply meet in a market.

These propositions can then be true or false and the value we assign to them decides if they are included in our knowledge. The way we assign truth or falsity can vary. In some theories truth is about correspondence with reality, and in some it is about coherence in the set of propositions we hold to be true.

Now, admittedly this is a quick sketch of our theory of knowledge, but it suffices to ask a very basic question. Why do we believe that propositions are fundamental to knowledge? Why do we believe that they are the atoms of which knowledge is constituted?

Philosopher and historian of ideas RG Collingwood thought the explanation for this was simple: logic and grammar grew up together, as sciences, so we ended up confusing one with the other. There are, Collingwood asserts, no reasons for assuming that knowledge breaks down into propositions. There are no grounds for asserting that propositions are more basic than other alternatives. The reason we have propositional logic is just because logic is so entwined with grammar.

That leaves us with an interesting problem: what, then, is knowledge made of?

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Socrates was clear. In Plato’s Theaetetus we find the following discussion in passing:

I mean the conversation which the soul holds with herself in considering of anything. I speak of what I scarcely understand; but the soul when thinking appears to me to be just talking—asking questions of herself and answering them, affirming and denying. And when she has arrived at a decision, either gradually or by a sudden impulse, and has at last agreed, and does not doubt, this is called her opinion. I say, then, that to form an opinion is to speak, and opinion is a word spoken,—I mean, to oneself and in silence, not aloud or to another: What think you?

This idea, that knowledge may be dialogical, that it may consist in a set of questions and answers to those questions is key to open another perspective on knowledge. It also, potentially, explains the attraction of the dialogue form for the Greeks: what better way to structure philosophical debate than in the same way knowledge is structured and produced? Why state propositions, when dialogue mimics the way we ourselves arrive at knowledge?

It is worthwhile taking a moment here. In one way this all seems so evident: of course we ask ourselves question to know! That is how we arrive at the propositions we hold true! But this is exactly where we need to pause. The reality is that the leap from questions and answers to propositions is uncalled for, and a leap that fools us into believing that questions are merely tools with which we uncover our propositions. Shovels that shovel aside the falsity from the truth. But knowledge is not like nuggets of gold buried in the earth – knowledge is the tension between answer and question in equilibrium. If you change the question, the balance of the whole thing changes as well – and your knowledge is changed.

As an aside: that is why, in belief revision, we often are interested in generating surprise in the person whose views we want to change. One way to describe surprise is as the unexpected answer to a question, that then forces a new question to be asked and the network of questions and answers is then updated to reflect a new belief – a new pair of questions and answers.

This minority view is found again in people like RG Collingwood who writes extensively about the fundamental nature of questions and it has been explicated at length by Jaako Hintikka who in his later philosophy developed what he called Socratic epistemology. In the next couple of posts we will examine what this could mean for our view of the conscious mind, and perhaps also for our view of artificial intelligence.

I think it will allow us to say that the Turing test was the wrong way around: that the questions should have been asked by the human subject and the computer to the test leader. It will also allow us to understand why human questioning is so surprisingly efficient, and why randomly generating queries is a horrible way to learn any subject. Human questions shape the field of knowledge in an interesting way, and we see this in the peculiar shape of human go games in the overall game space of go, but equally in the shape of human knowledge in chess.

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When new models for learning are devised they are able to explore completely different parts of the problem space, parts you don’t easily reach with the kinds of questions that we have been asking. Questions have a penumbra of possible knowledge, and I suspect – although this will be good to explore further – that our ability to question is intrinsically human, and perhaps in some sense even biological. Here I would point to the excellent work of professor Joseph Jordania on questions and evolutionary theory, in his work Who Asked The First Question?.

This is an area of exploration that I have been mining for some time now with a close collaborator in professor Fredrik Stjernberg, and we are getting ready to sum up the first part of our work soon, I hope. It is not just theoretical, but suggests interesting possibilities like dialogical networks (rather than adversarial ones) and a science of possible categories of questions and ways to ask new questions, or better questions.