Expressed as one word: “metaknowledge”. Knowledge about knowledge.
Expressed as one question: “how do I know what to believe?”
This question can be posed as two further questions: “can I believe myself?” and “can I believe the experts?”
Can I believe myself?
There’s a ton of work in the social sciences, especially in experimental psychology, which shows that we don’t really know ourselves. Attempts to find out our true motivations and to account for our behaviour come up with embarrassing results. Often, we simply don’t know why we do what we do, and our explanations to ourselves and to others are plausible fabrications.
This is not in any sense a secret. There is enough evidence described in any undergraduate psychology textbook to destabilise one’s taken-for-granted sense of self – or at the very least to bring on a serious attack of thoughtfulness. Don’t fancy ploughing through an undergraduate textbook? Well conveniently, there are whole shelves of well-written pop-science books about social psychology which act as convenient compendiums of the research evidence.
Yet this knowledge doesn’t really penetrate. This is hardly surprising. “Destabilise one’s taken-for-granted sense of self” doesn’t sound like a very enticing prospect. It sounds like a grim picture of a mechanistic universe where choice and free-will have dissolved into nothingness. Please let me put your mind at ease – this blog is not some grand philosophic argument against free will.
I take it as axiomatic that we do have some degree of real choice, but my overall view is that we have far less real choice than we think we have – we are pushed around, influenced, cajoled and manoeuvred by all sorts of environmental and social factors, some deliberate, most accidental. But here’s the important thing. If you are so keen on free will and choice, a practical way to have more choice and to exercise some true freedom, is to understand how little you currently have. To make truly active choices we need to understand that, left to our own devices, we mostly just bumble along, pushed this way and that by a motley collection of desires and pressures.
Can I believe the experts?
There is very little that any one person can know much about. We obviously rely on experts for many things. But how can we tell if someone is an appropriate expert? This matters! (Global Warming and Health Advice, to name but two examples).
An important source of reliable knowledge is science. Oh yes it is. But … there really are a lot of “buts”. There is a whole academic discipline, “philosophy of science”, about those ‘buts’. I’m particularly interested in what might be a called “comparative methodology” – how the methods and finding of different research disciplines differ. Yes physics and sociology (say) differ enormously but they both are based on evidence, (no really, they are) – what kinds of evidence? What counts as good or bad work?
So, those are some of the things this blog will touch on. As I have explained elsewhere I’m not too wild about the blog form in itself, but it is available as a cheap form of low-level publication.
It’s unlikely that there will be regular postings, quite a lot of what appears here will be in a terse “notebook” format and I do foresee a point where I will consider this blog “finished”. I’m also not especially concerned with building up a following – obviously, it’s nice when people do read your stuff, but if that becomes one’s main concern it tends to distort things in the directions of shoutiness an oversimplification.