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Applying Skeptical Scrutiny To Our Relationship With Knowledge
Posted: 25 June 2017 03:20 PM   [ Ignore ]
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Greetings all,

Thanks for this forum, looks interesting indeed, happy to be here. 

The purpose of this thread is to invite members to examine our relationship with knowledge. 

To stimulate conversation on this topic I will present a theory that claims our science driven modern civilization is based upon a simplistic, outdated and dangerous “more is better” relationship with knowledge.  I will attempt to apply skeptical scrutiny to some of the assumptions that form the foundation of science and our society, and of course expect and welcome that members will apply skeptical scrutiny to my theory in turn. 

A key goal in starting this thread is the hope that we can create a conversation so intelligent, thoughtful, insightful and free of emotional distractions that those more knowledgeable than us will find it worth their time to participate. Let’s think about which writers and thinkers we’d most like to discuss these topics with, and see if we can create a thread that will succeed in engaging them. 

That’s a quick introduction to what I hope we can achieve together.  To get the ball rolling I’ll begin outlining one point of view in the following posts. Thanks in advance for participating in this discussion.

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Posted: 25 June 2017 03:47 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]
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In my post above I claimed that our “more is better” relationship with knowledge is simplistic, outdated and dangerous.  To begin exploring why this may be so, we might start with an example by examining our relationship with food.

Since the dawn of time humanity has often lived near the edge of starvation, and thus a “more is better” relationship with food was entirely rational.  One can not be casual about food in any environment where it’s supply is chronically uncertain.  This state of affairs existed to one degree or another for thousands of years, and thus a “more is better” relationship with food tended to be built in to human assumptions and experienced as an obvious given. 

And then something remarkable happened.  In quite recent history, thanks to science entire continents of humans gained reliable access to a wide variety of nutritious food.  Although the hungry still do exist around the world, even in the most affluent societies, the widespread availability of reliable food supplies for billions of people has been revolutionary. 

And with that revolution came a new challenge to the ancient “more is better” relationship with food.  In the developed countries at least, more people are now dying of obesity related ailments than are dying of starvation.  The “more is better” relationship with food which was essential in an era characterized by scarcity became a lethal threat when applied in an era of abundance.  And thus we see that revolutionary times often require a re-examination of some of our most fundamental assumptions.

In following posts, I will be arguing that we are essentially in this same position today with our relationship with knowledge.  For endless centuries a “more is better” relationship with knowledge was entirely rational when knowledge was scarce and hard to come by.  But such a perspective may lose some of it rational basis when applied in a modern era characterized by an ever accelerating knowledge explosion.

More detailed arguments to follow soon.

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Posted: 25 June 2017 05:00 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 2 ]
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I’ll respond when you actually say something

[ Edited: 25 June 2017 07:03 PM by Lausten ]
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Posted: 26 June 2017 03:01 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 3 ]
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New knowledge often leads to new powers, thus a “more is better” relationship with knowledge is also a “more is better” relationship with power. The “more is better” relationship with knowledge/power assumes that human beings can successfully manage any amount of power that knowledge may deliver to us. 

This assumption seems an odd logical leap. 

We take it to be an obvious given that we should limit the powers available to children.  We don’t give a ten year old the keys to the car, a case of booze, and a loaded handgun out of the clear recognition that while a ten year old might be able to manage these powers for some period of time, any error in using such tools could be catastrophic and end their ability to learn from their mistakes.

But then, once we turn 18, such careful sensible reasoning is set aside and the assumption changes to a very ambitious theory that adult society should be provided with as much power as science can deliver.

But why isn’t this assumption true a reader might reasonably ask.  Sure, they might say, we will make mistakes with the powers we have, we always have and always will.  But we learn from our mistakes, fix the problems, and then continue to progress with the benefit of such learning.  Right?

And that’s all completely true.  Or rather, was completely true, in the past.  What changes this equation for today and the future is the emergence of what might be called “existential scale” powers, that is, powers that have the potential to crash modern civilization.  Nuclear weapons serve as an obvious and easily understood example of such an “existential scale” power.

In the 1940’s European culture made huge mistakes with conventional explosives, as they’d been doing repeatedly for some time, and most of Europe was reduced to rubble.  But, the Europeans recovered, learned from their mistakes, and now have one of the most peaceful continents on Earth. That’s a great example of human progress at work.

But what if WWII had taken place in the 1960’s instead of the 1940’s?  In that case the war might have been fought with nuclear weapons, and the opportunity to recover and learn from one’s mistakes would have been erased.  It would have been game over for Europe, at least for centuries to come.

It’s important to understand that existential scale powers are of a completely different type than the traditional powers which science has handed us, because they contain the potential to bring the entire process of learning to a halt. 

It’s also important to understand that existential scale powers require successful management every single day forever.  And managing just most of them successfully most of the time is not enough.  We could perfectly manage 25 existential scale powers, but that doesn’t matter if we lose control of just one, just one time.

Our “more is better” relationship with knowledge and power will continue to produce glorious wonders that make our lives better and better, but it will also increasingly remove any room for error. 

Well, to be more precise, we are already there in that future.  As you know, all the progress of science, most everything we’ve accomplished in the last 1,000 years, and most everything we might accomplish in the next 1,000 years, can all be erased right now today at any moment.  One bad day, that’s all it takes.

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Posted: 26 June 2017 07:23 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 4 ]
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You’re talking about “technology”, not so much “science”.  One example—obesity is not the result of eating too much; it’s the result of eating too much junk food, foods that your body actually doesn’t need.  Businesses acquired the technology to churn out sugar filled soft drinks and fat riddled pastries, and package and market them and distribute them in such a way as to make them readily available.  They did not do that because this food is essential to their customer’s diets.  They did it to make money.  We then discover that our bodies crave fats and sugars because of the conditions we evolved under.  That explains why we so easily fall for that trap, and then if we’re smart, we can make allowances for it.  That’s science.

You can say the same about computer technology, which will probably end up destroying modern culture much better than A-bomb would have.

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Posted: 26 June 2017 09:19 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 5 ]
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Hi Advocatus,

Advocatus - 26 June 2017 07:23 AM

You’re talking about “technology”, not so much “science”.

 

Well, yes, as I said above, knowledge developed by science often leads to new powers in the form of technology.  Hypothetically, it would be true that if science was always just for curiosity and never led to new powers, then the issues I’m exploring would not arise.

As the thread title suggests, I’m attempting to engage members in a discussion about our relationship with knowledge.  Knowledge is not the problem, just as food is not the problem.  It’s our relationship with these things that should be examined. 

To what degree is our ancient “more is better” relationship with knowledge appropriate to a modern era characterized by an accelerating knowledge explosion?  Should we keep going full speed ahead with knowledge development?  Should we stop?  Is there a more sophisticated way to think about knowledge than “more is better” vs. “back to the 8th century”?

It may help to think of knowledge as an element of nature, like water, or electricity.  Our brains and the data they contain are obviously a product of nature like everything else.  With water and electricity we avoid simplistic formulas, and attempt to channel such resources in a sophisticated manner, applying more of them here, and less of them there.  Is it time to start thinking about knowledge as a natural resource which has to be aimed and controlled more intelligently than just blasting away with the “more is better” fire hose in every direction?

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Posted: 26 June 2017 09:36 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 6 ]
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Here’s an example of the kind of new thinking which may be required.  It’s just an off the top of my head example, so I’m not married to this specific proposal, I’m just trying to think outside the box.

What if we redirected 50% of all science research to the challenge of somehow eliminating the threat from nuclear weapons?

At first this sounds crazy, and the science community will jump up in outrage at the thought of massive funding cuts in their own fields of endeavor.  Very few in our social group consensus would even think of such a plan, let alone implement it.  It’s wacko, right? 

But here’s the thing.  If we don’t successfully manage nuclear weapons, and any other “existential scale” powers which will emerge, nothing else matters.

What’s the point of ANY scientific research if we collapse modern civilization by nukes or some other method?  Wouldn’t all that research be erased in the collapse, and thus be a pointless waste of effort?

Thus, how we feel about all of science depends to a great degree on how we evaluate the threat from “existential scale” technologies.  If we feel there is no threat, we should try to demonstrate that by an effective rebuttal of the arguments made earlier in the thread.  If we feel there is a threat, we’d better figure how to dodge the danger, or most everything we have learned from science and could learn through science is on the line.

Regrettably, this is not futuristic speculation for the power to collapse civilization already exists, and everything science has accomplished can now be erased in less than an hour.  The mechanism for this is already in place on hair trigger launch on warning status, just waiting patiently for somebody somewhere to do something stupid.

But the good news is that we in the U.S. now have a very calm, thoughtful, mature, intelligent, careful, reasonable, experienced person in control of our nukes, so there’s really nothing to worry about after all.  grin

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Posted: 27 June 2017 05:30 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 7 ]
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Maybe I’d better be more flamboyant and controversial to boost the ratings for this thread.  grin

Let’s revisit the mission statement for this website, which reads in part…

At the Center for Inquiry, we believe that evidence-based reasoning, in which humans work together to address common concerns, is critical for modern world civilization.

Ok, that sounds reasonable enough.  Or is it?

1) Science is based on evidence-based reasoning.

2) Science is driving an ever accelerating knowledge explosion.

3) The knowledge explosion will give us greater and greater powers at a faster and faster rate.

4) Sooner or later this process will inevitably generate powers that humans can’t successfully manage.

5) Once that happens, some knowledge driven calamity will unfold and crash modern civilization, erasing most or all of the accomplishments of science, thus rendering today’s science pointless.

The above sequence is clearly debatable, so let’s give it a shot.  If you object to the above reasoning, please specify at which point in the 1-5 sequence of assertions above you feel the reasoning goes wrong.

To start things rolling, it seems assertion #4 might be a place to focus.  To me, it seems hard to argue against assertion 1,2 and 3.  And assertion 5 depends on assertion 4.

Here’s the challenge.  If we really believe in the process of skeptical scrutiny, we should apply skeptical scrutiny to the process of skeptical scrutiny too. 

Is reason and science really leading us to a better future?  Or is that outdated wishful thinking? If reason and science is racing towards a civilization crashing cliff, is there a way to edit the process of knowledge development so as to avoid a tragic conclusion to the story?

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Posted: 27 June 2017 06:08 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 8 ]
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You’re leaving out the human nature element.

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Posted: 27 June 2017 06:54 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 9 ]
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// 1) Science is based on evidence-based reasoning.

2) Science is driving an ever accelerating knowledge explosion.

3) The knowledge explosion will give us greater and greater powers at a faster and faster rate.

4) Sooner or later this process will inevitably generate powers that humans can’t successfully manage.

5) Once that happens, some knowledge driven calamity will unfold and crash modern civilization, erasing most or all of the accomplishments of science, thus rendering today’s science pointless. //


That seems to be fallacious. A “Slippery Slope”?

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Posted: 27 June 2017 06:59 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 10 ]
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// If we really believe in the process of skeptical scrutiny, we should apply skeptical scrutiny to the process of skeptical scrutiny too. //

Well, that makes no sense to me. Its like saying, “We should not be dogmatic about not being dogmatic, if we are, it implies we are dogmatic”.

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Posted: 27 June 2017 07:04 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 11 ]
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Tanny - 27 June 2017 05:30 AM

Is reason and science really leading us to a better future?

First, you have to define “better future”. In doing so, you must ask if humanity is even capable of such a task. Eugenics has been one failed example. Scientific knowledge tells us that natural selection is the final arbiter of our future and that doesn’t necessarily mean “better” in the way we would interpret it. The only thing we humans can do is offer up our options, purposefully and/or accidentally for the processes of evolution to accept or reject. A “better” future is a worthy goal, but I suspect it will be challenging to meet a sufficient consensus for those goals. Most importantly, any plan should focus solidly on survivability. Our ONLY future is a survivable one (and recognize in that, we know we’re not meant to survive forever).
Why pick on science? As you note, science in itself is not the application of knowledge. The issue is the application of knowledge which cuts across many other disciplines. Scientific research is already highly manipulated by the funding process. Many feel uncomfortable with this, pointing out that major scientific discoveries often arise in unanticipated ways. If you want to “improve” the world, perhaps a better way is to encourage establishments of learning that bring together creative minds dedicated to your goal. In doing so, you may redirect research funding to a new area but by offering the entire intellectual community an option to pursue rather than a “take it or leave it” mandate. It also invites input from non-science disciplines (philosophy) to offer their contribution because we really can’t predict where the innovation will come from.
We don’t just overeat because food is abundant. We overeat for many reasons. One being the “more is better” attitude some people hold about money. Selling more food makes them more money so they make foods that appeal to our taste and market food so that we are constantly motivated to eat. Do we cure it by withdrawing efforts to learn how to produce food more effectively, or should we make efforts to minimise the abuse of a valuable resource?

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Posted: 27 June 2017 07:11 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 12 ]
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// knowledge developed by science often leads to new powers in the form of technology.  Hypothetically, it would be true that if science was always just for curiosity and never led to new powers, then the issues I’m exploring would not arise //

Science is not conscious. It cannot lead to new powers. Science is a method implemented to derive knowledge, the knowledge of reality. Application of this knowledge is Technology. Now, who is applying, for what purpose he is applying, and to what extent he is applying, decides the purpose of the technology which he has derived as a product.  It is we humans, who has used the knowledge derived from science, to create vaccine for small pox, as well as nuclear weapons.

[ Edited: 27 June 2017 07:13 AM by Yogi Yugpurush ]
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Posted: 27 June 2017 07:28 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 13 ]
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Hi John,

JohnH - 27 June 2017 07:04 AM

First, you have to define “better future”.

Ok, let’s see, how about a continuation of the standard of living progress achieved over the last few hundred years.  As example, in our time millions of Chinese peasants are being liberated from endless centuries of dirt poor poverty.

JohnH - 27 June 2017 07:04 AM

In doing so, you must ask if humanity is even capable of such a task.

To some degree, for some period of time, yes.

A “better” future is a worthy goal, but I suspect it will be challenging to meet a sufficient consensus for those goals.

Well, yes, there would certainly be debate about the details.  But generally speaking, most people around the world want pretty much the same thing, the status quo continues to become more agreeable and it affects them personally.

Why pick on science?

I’m not picking on science, but trying to save science.

As you note, science in itself is not the application of knowledge. The issue is the application of knowledge which cuts across many other disciplines.

Yes, we agree, it is the conversion of knowledge in to power that is the issue.  I’m tying to comment upon the real world we live in, where most new knowledge is funded by those seeking new powers of one kind or another.

If you want to “improve” the world, perhaps a better way is to encourage establishments of learning that bring together creative minds dedicated to your goal.

That’s what I’m trying to do in this thread, seeing this website as an “establishment of learning” that can bring together creative minds to address the issue.  Should I be invited to lecture at Harvard grin I’ll attend to that too.

In doing so, you may redirect research funding to a new area but by offering the entire intellectual community an option to pursue rather than a “take it or leave it” mandate. It also invites input from non-science disciplines (philosophy) to offer their contribution because we really can’t predict where the innovation will come from.

I do suspect that leadership on this issue will have to come from outside of the scientific community, given the huge stake scientists have in the “more is better” model.  I’d be happy to be wrong on this.  One of my goals for this thread is that we make it of a sufficient quality so people like working scientists might find it worth their time to engage.  You know, if we’re serious about exploring this issue we should be looking for ways to engage those who know more than we do.

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Posted: 27 June 2017 07:41 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 14 ]
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Tanny - 26 June 2017 09:36 AM

Here’s an example of the kind of new thinking which may be required.  It’s just an off the top of my head example, so I’m not married to this specific proposal, I’m just trying to think outside the box.

What if we redirected 50% of all science research to the challenge of somehow eliminating the threat from nuclear weapons?

It would be completely pointless, because not only would you be arbitrarily depriving thousands of scientists of funding, even if you could imagine that some “scientific” means of eliminating nuclear weapons was found, there’d still be the problem of convincing the politicians and the generals to go along with it.  Heck, we haven’t even managed to convince them that global climate change is a fact.  So once again, it’s not “knowledge” that’s causing the problem, it’s what politicians and generals decided to do with that knowledge.  It would make more sense to redirect 50% of defense and military spending to somehow eliminating the threat of nuclear weapons, but that proposal is even more “whacko”.  Not because it’s a bad idea, but because the ones who hold the purse strings would never go for it.

As far as I’m concerned, it’s never a bad idea to have too much knowledge, to know too much about anything.

Hey, I agree that our civilization is probably headed headlong toward the crapper.  You don’t even need to worry about nuclear weapons somehow going off.  That’s chicken feed.  The more dependent we are on computers, the more likely that some moron is going to come up with a simple means of bringing it all down.  I read a science fiction story about that once—the viruses and malware had grown so powerful and invasive that they became self-aware and took over the whole Net, and Mankind couldn’t even turn the computers off, so they had no choice but to simply stop using computers, period.  But hey, nobody stops to think of this because all they can see is the temporary advantage their virus gives them in the marketplace.

Once again the problem is not knowledge, it’s lack of wisdom.  If you could think of a cure for that, you’d really have something.

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Posted: 27 June 2017 08:12 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 15 ]
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Advocatus - 27 June 2017 07:41 AM

It would be completely pointless, because not only would you be arbitrarily depriving thousands of scientists of funding, even if you could imagine that some “scientific” means of eliminating nuclear weapons was found, there’d still be the problem of convincing the politicians and the generals to go along with it.

First, a lot of scientists would lose their funding, that’s surely true.  But on the other hand, that funding would be reinvested elsewhere, creating huge new projects for somebody to work on.

So once again, it’s not “knowledge” that’s causing the problem, it’s what politicians and generals decided to do with that knowledge. 

It’s what ANYBODY decides to do with the new knowledge.  As example, genetic engineering is becoming easier and easier, cheaper and cheaper. Before long high school students will be doing it in their garages.

It would make more sense to redirect 50% of defense and military spending to somehow eliminating the threat of nuclear weapons, but that proposal is even more “whacko”.  Not because it’s a bad idea, but because the ones who hold the purse strings would never go for it.

The problem is far larger than nuclear weapons.  Nuclear weapons are just a readily available easily understood example of “existential scale” technology.  If we got completely rid of nukes, the equation I’m outlining in this thread would remain, though would admittedly be less immediately pressing.

BTW, Reagan and Gorbachev seriously considered getting rid of ALL of their nuclear weapons.  They didn’t pull it off, but the possibility does exist.

As far as I’m concerned, it’s never a bad idea to have too much knowledge, to know too much about anything.

Yes, this is the “more is better” relationship with knowledge.  It’s been with us since the beginning so it’s a very deeply entrenched cultural consensus.  So let’s learn some new knowledge, knowledge about how to manage knowledge in a more mature manner.

Once again the problem is not knowledge, it’s lack of wisdom.

It’s the relationship between power and wisdom. And there’s really little evidence that our wisdom is ever going to be able to keep pace with ever accelerating knowledge/power development.  So unless we have some plan for getting wiser and wiser at faster and faster rates, the only available options are 1) learn how to better manage knowledge and power development, or 2) face the fact that everything we’re learning now is essentially pointless because it’s all going to be erased.

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