Saturday, November 15, 2008

Knowledge is Contextual

We sometimes discuss philosophy at work. I'm ok with that because ideas are important and I like talking about them. However, there are some very fundamental concepts that are either understood only at an implicit level or not at all by some of the participants in these discussions. I'm going to blog about some of these things in hopes that they will be more widely recognized and understood. The first idea that I'm going to cover is the idea that all knowledge is contextual.

It's my view that all knowledge has perceptual data at its base. That is, there is no other means to knowledge than our senses. Or, our senses are our only contact with reality. This being the case, ideas which have no context or ideas being used outside the context which support them are not knowledge. Or, to put it another way, meaningful statements about reality are tied directly to the context that supports them and are not usable outside of that context.

An idea with no context is an idea that can't be traced back to reality or is not supportable by facts of reality when it is traced back. Here are some ideas that have no context:
  1. There is a Sears catalog on the surface of the moon.
  2. Bowling balls float on water.
  3. An elf ate my sandwich last Saturday.
Ideas with context are knowledge and are valid but they cannot be used outside of their context. For example, it makes no sense to say that unicorns eat hay because horses eat hay. This statement is not logical. It's not a statement about reality. There is no place in reality that I can go to see unicorns eat hay. It's true that horses eat hay. It's true that unicorns are an imaginary creature that can be described as a horse with a horn. However, it makes no sense to try to prove that unicorns eat hay because horses eat hay. Arguments about what unicorns eat are not arguments about reality. You can't apply your knowledge of what horses eat to unicorns.

The examples above are sort of contrived to illustrate what I'm trying to communicate. Some more realistic consequences of the contextual nature of knowledge follow.

Morality is derived in what I call the "normal context" of everyday human life. Morality is thus only valid in that context. This fact has some not well recognized consequences. Emergency situations are not part of the "normal context" and thus morality doesn't apply. For example, if a person's car breaks down in the middle of a blizzard and the only way he can survive is to break into a hunting cabin and use the supplies he finds there, it's not wrong for him to do that. It would be wrong in the "normal context". Emergency situations must be handled in an ad hoc manner. The principles of morality do not apply.

Hypothetical situations are often floated in discussions and they are often misused. If you are arguing against an idea, you must recognize its context. Hypothetical situations that are outside of an idea's context are irrelevant. For example, suppose you are arguing against the idea that government should not provide universal health care. A hypothetical situation in which technology advances to such an extent that health care can be provided at no cost is not something that is meaningful. We do not live in such a context. The idea that universal health care should not be provided by government was not derived in that context.

Since knowledge is contextual, knowledge can change if the context changes. What was true in the past is not necessarily true now. What is true now will not necessarily be true in the future. If you think knowledge is forever or universal or contextless, you're wrong. What you know can and should change to reflect new knowledge. This is the way knowledge works. You might wish that humans were infallible and all knowing. You might wish you could think about things for a few years and figure everything out for all time. Keep wishing. That's not reality.

Another consequence of the contextual nature of knowledge is that an idea that is valid in one context can be invalid in another. This doesn't mean the idea is false. It's true in its context. For example, Newtonian physics is true when applied to macroscopic objects traveling far below the speed of light. However, it doesn't work in other contexts. It'd be wrong to say that Newtonian physics is invalid because it only works in its context. All knowledge is contextual.

I think everybody who participates in our philosophical discussions at work knows some of or all of the above at an implicit level at least. However, that's not good enough. In order to be right about the things we discuss and to discuss them in a way that's not a waste of time, you need to know all of the above (and more) explicitly. You need to be able state and use a whole host of fundamental ideas from philosophy in order to even have a chance of being right about anything as abstract as morality, politics, or knowledge.

If any of the above is new to you, I suggest there are more important things you need to think about than whether or not the government should provide universal health care or the problem of universals or the ideas of Immanuel Kant.


Manganeez said...

I can appreciate your observations, but disagree with a few nuances. I should note for other readers that I'm throwing in a bit more detail that comes from personal conversations I've had with Greg. I should also point out (and I think Greg would agree with this) that I'm not the primary opponent Greg is referring to. I'm the more middle-ground, see-both-sides guy. Anyways, here goes...

My first issue is that you appear to equate someone posing a hypothetical situation with that person making the claim that this the situation if factual. While doing so, you retreat to rhetoric by using outlandish hypotheticals as examples, but that's fine, I'll go with that. To illustrate, you state that someone claiming that unicorns eat hay simply because horses do so is not logical. Any logical person would agree with that much. However, that doesn't invalidate hypothetically supposing that they do. Suppose I were to say, "Suppose unicorns existed and that they eat hay. Could we then surmise that (borrowing Wikipedia's definition of hay) grass or legumes either grow in their environment or are imported to it?" There is absolutely nothing wrong with applying logic or morality to that hypothetical. This is a fallacy I've seen you use a few times in order to attempt to discount perfectly valid (and far less outlandish) hypotheticals. It's not entirely unreasonable for your opponent to accuse you of using this fallacy in order to avoid having to answer the question when you do that.

Another problem with your observations is the claim that "morality doesn't apply" to circumstances outside what you refer to as the "normal context", such as emergencies. If I thought your really meant what you said, I'd be alarmed. *Of course* morality applies to emergency situations. I'd certainly admits some bars might get lowered, such as breaking and entering in order to survive, but there are still bars that would not be cleared by a moral person. If your choices were your own (and only your own) death vs. the deaths of millions of innocents, I'm sure you'd make the sacrifice. Again, the fact that this hypothetical hasn't actually happened to you does not invalidate the question. As an aside, back to the breaking-and-entering thing, one could also that morality itself doesn't apply any less - all that changed was your own tolerance for immorality. Is that different? I don't know - it seems pretty semantic to me. I'm just saying.

Continuing, you finally come to the real subject that inspired your post, the conversation about health care. The hypothetical of a future when health care had zero cost was posed (not by me, for other readers). This is where you commit the fallacy I referred to above, dismissing the hypothetical because it's not the present reality. Even though I think this hypothetical future is so far away as to actually border on unicorn-like outlandishness, it is still valid as a supposition. For other readers, let me flesh out what was said:

1. Greg believes (any mischaracterization here is unintentional - my apologies if this isn't exactly right) that it is outside the role of government to require sacrifice of time, money, effort or anything else from one person in order to provide health care for anyone else (or, I suppose, even him/herself). Note: he does not think it's wrong for people to do so voluntarily, and, I believe, views doing so as an honorable thing.

2. The hypothetical posed was to the effect of, "if we could know for a fact that a zero-health-care-cost future (where no such sacrifice would ever be required again) were in the cards, then does it then become immoral *not* to require the sacrifice (investment) now in order to get there?"

This, Greg, is where you dismissed the hypothetical (to be fair, it was, in fact, separately claimed by the other person that assuming the survival of the human race, such a future is bound to be reached eventually, but agreeing with that is not required for consideration of it as a hypothetical). Personally, I see no need to dismiss it. I think taking the position, "No. That future, even if it could somehow be guaranteed, has no bearing on the morality of requiring sacrifice now." is perfectly reasonable and consistent with your world view. You could even add that accepting a posited zero-cost future could then be applied to anything as a justification for immoral acts now, perhaps leading to an increasingly dystopian society.

On to the "Newtonian physics" example. This is just a quibble, but I think you'd better stick to matters of human reasoning when referring to "contexts" as you've been using the term. Bringing in factual realities will only cloud the issue. For example, I disagree with your characterization of "macroscopic objects traveling far below the speed of light" as the context for Newtonian physics. I would instead say that "reality" is the context. And in the context of reality, Newtonian physics works (as an approximation acceptable for most purposes, but I digress) for macroscopic objects traveling far below the speed of light.

That last item is yet another issue of semantics, and I don't feel that strongly about it. However, I can state unequivocally that I don't know, either implicitly or explicitly, that hypothetical situations are invalid points of argument or that morality does not at all apply to emergency situations, so if you wish to limit your thinking, you can circularly discount my above comments since you've already categorized me as having no "chance of being right about anything as abstract as morality, politics, or knowledge." As for me, I'm afraid I'll just have to keep thinking for myself.

Manganeez said...

Just a clarification. I'm not actually middle-ground. As far as my actual beliefs on the subject, I lean toward the other guy, though I'm much less "absolute" about it.

In terms of how to debate about it, though, I lean more toward Greg. My middle-ness is somewhat of an average. :)

Anonymous said...

@Greg: I don't have a problem with the idea that knowledge is contextual. I think your ideas about morality and ethics are wrong. Additionally, your idea of context in politics seems to be rather narrow or at least a matter of rather dogmatic semantics. That's all I'll say.

Greg said...


I'll eventually respond to everything you post here. For now, let me try to just clear up what I was saying about hypothetical situations.

Suppose I say that statement S is true in context C. Say somebody disagrees with me. And, as part of the argument they propose hypothetical situation H. Suppose H describes a situation that doesn't fall within context C. How is H relevant at all to S? C provides evidence for S. C is the limit of truth for S. S is not true outside of C. S says nothing about H. H is outside of C. Do you see and agree with what I'm trying to say there?

Greg said...

I stand by my claim that morality doesn't apply outside the context in which it is derived, that is, the "normal context". All knowledge is contextual, including morality.

I said emergency situations had to be handled in an ad hoc manner. You can and should still think about what you need to do and do whatever makes sense. So, I can imagine an emergency situation with a "right" thing to do and a "wrong" thing to do, but this "right" and "wrong" are not moral "right" and "wrong".

Another thing to realize is that the goal of a person in most emergency situations is to return to the "normal context" (usually as quickly as possible). So, for the blizzard example from my post, the person who breaks into the cabin and gets supplies almost immediately returns to a "normal context" and he should do the morally right thing. He should repair the window the best he can to keep the elements from ruining the cabin. He shouldn't trash the place. When he eventually gets to town, he should seek out the owner of the cabin and fix things. Etc.

Our mutual friend this week proposed an emergency situation in which cannibalism made sense. He went on to say our current context is an emergency situation like that. I've never gone into McDonald's and seen McSchoolKid on the menu.

It's that kind of stuff that really drives me nuts.

Greg said...

Proposed hypothetical:

2. The hypothetical posed was to the effect of, "if we could know for a fact that a zero-health-care-cost future (where no such sacrifice would ever be required again) were in the cards, then does it then become immoral *not* to require the sacrifice (investment) now in order to get there?"


This hypothetical says nothing about my claims that universal health care should not be provided by the government in the current context. = )

It's a waste of time to think about it. It isn't going to happen. = )

Greg said...

>>> so if you wish to limit your thinking, you can circularly discount my above comments since you've already categorized me as having no "chance of being right about anything as abstract as morality, politics, or knowledge." As for me, I'm afraid I'll just have to keep thinking for myself. <<<

There are obviously wrong ways to think. For example, deciding what is true by consulting a magic 8-ball is not valid.

I claim there is also a right way to think. I don't think that's an extraordinary claim. If there are wrong ways to think there are also right ways.

If a person hasn't "figured thinking out" and doesn't actively/consciously and consistently apply what he knows about thinking/knowledge/reasoning to his own thoughts, he has very little chance of being right about more abstract things like morality and politics.

Just look at all the different and mutually exclusive ideas people believe. What explains this situation? I think the answer is twofold. People don't know how to think and people willfully come to whatever conclusion they want to without really taking the time to truthfully figure things out. Getting things right is not their primary concern.