In his recent post, Adam Gurri asserts that there is no ultimate difference between persuasion and rational evaluation. Although Gurri defends his position well, reading that post elicited an almost visceral reaction against what he was saying. In what sense could, for example, the collection of field data verifying that the radioactive half-life of strontium-90 is 28.8 years be essentially no different than powerful rhetoric arguing that it is so?
The point of Gurri’s post, of course, is to point out that persuasion, done right, is not unethical. He uses his observation that rational analysis “is first and foremost attempting to discover what conclusion we find persuasive” in order to buttress that case.
I agree with Gurri in the main. I agree that persuasion is not unethical, and that a substantial amount of rational analysis is an attempt to find the most persuasive theory. Still, I think a substantial portion of human knowledge is manifest. This offers us a potential remedy for the politicization of knowledge in general.
Three Kinds Of Knowledge
Before I really get going, I’d like to make a potentially controversial claim: With regard to the present topic at least, there are essentially three kinds of knowledge, which I will (loosely) call “innate knowledge,” “direct observation,” and “retention.” (Bear with me.)
What I call “innate knowledge” is the set of existential facts that are so self-evident that denying them constitutes literal nonsense.
For example, we are all aware of the fact that consciousness exists because consciousness is defined to be every aspect of our sense of awareness. We cannot even deny the existence of consciousness without experiencing it. This knowledge was not acquired through any sort of data collection, analysis, or persuasion. We possessed it as soon as we possessed consciousness itself. Knowledge of our own consciousness is, therefore, innate. At this risk of sounding like Hoppe, to deny this kind of knowledge is to demonstrate it; therefore, it can’t sensibly be denied.
Innate knowledge might also include: knowledge of the existence of knowledge; the conception of concepts themselves; crude logical building blocks such as “difference” and “duality;” logical operands; and so on.
What I call direct observation is any fact that a person directly observes. If a child burns her finger on a match, that experience is a direct observation. She might extrapolate from her experience that any lit match could potentially burn her finger, but this would not be a direct observation. The knowledge of the initial experience, however, would be.
Our memories and experiences make up our complete set of direct observations. To question this knowledge is to question one’s own sanity – certainly appropriate in some circumstances, but generally dubious. Direct observations constitute knowledge as sure as the existence of consciousness, provided that the observer is genuinely sane. Even so, when questioning our sanity, we question it, not the veracity of our observations. Only after determining the state of our sanity can we go back to questioning our direct observations.
While the observer may never be able to definitively persuade others that the observed was actually observed, the surety of that knowledge is no less unquestionable to the observer than the existence of her own consciousness.
Finally, there is what I’ll call “retention,” or all facts that are neither innate nor directly observed, but that would be virtually insane to question. For example, I have reason to believe that I possess a human heart. I have not directly observed my heart (although I can hear and feel evidence of my heart beat). I cannot prove the existence of my heart to other people. And yet, based on every verifiable fact of human anatomy and personal experience, it would be more or less insane to claim that I do not possess a heart.
I call this knowledge rather than theory because skepticism of things such as the existence of one’s own unobserved heart, or the fact that one’s spouse is a tangible person and not a complex delusion, or etc., constitutes a direct contradiction of every other piece of innate knowledge and direct observation a person has. It is not merely – as Paul Crider writes – “the willingness to put skepticism aside for the sake of rational thought” (although it is that, too). It is also the functional ability to keep all other knowledge in one’s head, and use it. One cannot constantly and perpetually observe that matches burn one’s finger. The ability to recall that a match burned one’s finger without having to verify the same observation all the time is the ability to retain knowledge. This, in a nutshell, is what I’m calling “retention.”
Conviction and Persuasion
Note that none of the knowledge I have discussed above requires that we be persuaded of its existence. We need only our sanity.
The existence of this knowledge is important because it establishes that there is at least some knowledge that is not subject to persuasion. That is, contra Gurri, some knowledge is apolitical. In fact, we can draw a straight line from sentience, to observation, to extrapolation. We only arrive at a politics of knowledge when confronted with the fact that no one person can directly observe or logically prove every piece of knowledge that he needs in life. He must be willing to accept that his fellows have made useful observations of their own.
Regarding knowledge shared with others, we face a new dynamic: the choice of what claims to accept rather than directly observe, the choice of whose claims to accept compared to others, the choice of which claims to deem credible and why, etc. Here we must confront the biases that color our thinking; here we must confront our human tendency toward motivated reasoning. In this realm, we find that Gurri is absolutely correct.
Then why would I be so pedantic as to differentiate between political and apolitical knowledge when, as must be clear enough by now, Gurri’s posts have been specifically about the trust we place on the knowledge we gain from others?
One reason is that doing so provides us with a potential remedy for the problems he has identified. Knowing that an honest truth-seeker can, in highly politicized moments, step back, out of the realm of political knowledge, and into the more reliable world of direct observation provides us with an important check on the undue influence of politics and motivated reasoning.
Taking too much for granted, placing too much trust in the work of those who came before us places us in an unacceptably vulnerable position. This is particularly true now that politicized knowledge is so ubiquitous in this day and age. There is a reason, after all, that math teachers force us to replicate proofs of mathematical phenomena. There is a reason why statisticians must first learn the foundations of their craft before applying themselves to real-world data science problems. And, yes, there is a reason students of economics are forced to begin with principles courses and construct logical proofs of economic phenomena. We need to be able to de-politicize knowledge and verify things for ourselves. We need to be able to fact-check.
Because of this, I stop short of calling all knowledge political. However impractical it is to personally verify every fact one comes across, it is ultimately most practical, most reliable, most sensible, and most apolitical to remember that some knowledge is, in fact, manifest. At least as manifest as our consciousness, anyway.
3 thoughts on “A Little Manifest Truth Goes A Long Way”
I think you’re right that there is a domain of knowledge that is apolitical (and I’m going to define this as “without the polis”, so essentially non-social knowledge). But I think you’re a little ambitious in your estimation of how big this domain is.
I like to think about what one person can accomplish on a deserted island. Can they advance knowledge at all? Does science work in the solitary, primitive environment? I think so. You can do experiments and probably teach yourself how to create fire, and hunt, and build shelter if you don’t already know how to do these things. On the other hand, you already know these things are possible, and your reasoning function has already been honed by language and social interactions. A child raised by wolves will never make fire. So apolitical knowledge exists, for sure, but almost all of it is underpinned by political knowledge.
I think the line between your “direct observation” and “retained knowledge” is quite blurry. You mention the possibility of insanity. But what about illusions? It is very well established that humans do not *simply* take sensory data in raw. We only perceive sensory data after our brains have filtered it and accommodated it within our brain’s working model of the world. If you are shown a deck of cards that includes a red king of spades and a black jack of hearts, you probably won’t notice until you’ve been through the deck multiple times (this is an old study). Most people don’t see the person in the ape suit walking out into the middle of the basketball game.
Very good points. One minor clarification with regard to observation vs retention:
Let’s say you thought you saw a light in the sky. Your perception of what looked to be a light is what I’d call a direct observation. Whether you conclude that the light was an airplane, a lightning bolt, a UFO, an ocular migraine, or a detached retina isn’t knowledge at all – those are just theories. Retention is your ability to know that even if the flashing light was merely an illusion, it could only have been a certain kind of illusion (ocular migraine, detached retina, etc.), as opposed to, say, a cheeseburger. 😉
l couldn’t agree with you more. I find myself endlessly frustrated by the fact that this principle is not foundationally applied to the Gordian Knot that is our legal system. The existence of apolitical knowledge makes possible the establishment of a non-arbitrary standard of applied justice. Moreover, the structure of the US Constitution provides a potential vehicle for such change.