[ 30/June/22 ]


From the Greek – Episteme (knowledge) and Logos (account). Our story about what it might mean to know something.

So what is my understanding, my story, my current best guess, most useful approximation, to whatever knowledge might actually be?

And the way I phrased that is the key.

In the past, and even today, many people believe that knowledge – as in a perfectly accurate understanding of some aspect of reality (whatever it is) is possible. To me, that idea seems to have been disproven beyond any remaining shadow of reasonable doubt.

To me, the fundamental theories from physics now describe reality in terms of probabilities of influence. The classical idea of hard cause and effect does not exist as such, though it is very closely approximated at some scales in this universe (and we exist at one of those scales – so classical causality is often a very useful idea).

Also to me, as someone who has been passionately interested in biology, in life, in how life works, from the subatomic levels, up through biochemistry to the higher levels of structures and organisation and degrees of freedom and creativity present, for over 50 years – it is a topic that has taken me into realms of complexity, uncertainty, and logics that even at university I never even imagined could possibly exist.

So there is very little about my understanding of epistemology that is simple; and what I will give here is a very simple introduction to some of the key themes that are repeated at multiple levels of complexity and structure within the framework that is my current most useful approximation to an answer to the question of what is my epistemology.

One aspect is biological.

One part of being human is to be a biological human organism – a mammal, one of the great apes, an individual in a social environment.

Being biologically human gives us two distinct sets of natures (influences), one set comes from our genetics, and one set comes from our social context (the language, tools, institutions, concepts, habits, environments, etc) of our birth and upbringing.

Human beings are necessarily both individuals and parts of social groups. Both aspects are essential to our being. Anyone claiming one aspect is more important than the other has over simplified reality beyond what is survivable.

And it is deeply more complex than that.

We do seem to have choice, at various levels in various contexts; and our choices matter – they are an important source of influence at every level of our being, in the sorts of contexts we recognise.

Most of our behaviour is very context dependent. Most of us behave in very different ways depending on context. How a man behaves in a pub after a day fishing with his mates, might be very different to how he behaves with his sisters and mother at his grandmother’s dead-bed. Those are extremes, and every context has subtle influences at the subconscious level on who we get to be in that context, the sort of ideas and actions that occur to us as possible and appropriate.

So we are not just one person, exactly the same in every context, in every behaviour, we are many potential people in many possible contexts. A modern understanding of how the neocortex of our brains is structured points to every one of us having thousands of models of what is present as context and what is appropriate behaviour, and those models “voting” to reach a consensus about what to present to consciousness (and consciousness being a next level abstraction of models voting about how to behave in that context). And the numbers involved in those systems are mind numbingly large. When one includes the pattern integrating abilities and diversity of the synaptic protein complexes present; then the human brain is capable of “searching” a “space” of some 10^50 patterns per second. That is a 1 with 50 zeros after it. To give you a feel for just how big a number that is, if you think about all the seconds that have existed in the age of the universe (some 15 billion years), that is only a 4 with 17 zeros after it. If you take the fastest computer present on the planet today, it can do about 1 with 18 zeros after it multiplications per second, so if it had been running since the universe began multiplying stuff, that would be a 4 with 35 zeros after it multiplications – still 15 zeros short of the pattern searches the human brain can do every second.

We have to simplify that down to something we can deal with consciously.

Whatever we do with it, however we understand it, label it, it is going to be over simplistic and essentially wrong in some contexts.

That is a simple, mathematical, fact.

If you think you actually “Know” someone – sorry, that is just your subconscious fooling you, they are necessarily far more complex than any conception you may have of them – we can prove that beyond any shadow of reasonable doubt.

But we all have to exist.

Evolution is all about continued existence.

So it demands of our amazing brains that they deliver to consciousness useful approximations of whatever it actually is that we are and that which we are embedded within. And that seems to be what we experience as existence.

And sometimes reality has required of our ancestors that they react quickly to escape dangers, or that they conserve energy to survive famines. So we have multiple levels of subconscious systems that simplify things as much as survivably possible, to allow us to take actions quickly that are usually survivable (and at the very least allowed all of our ancestors to survive long enough to breed often enough that we are here). The more stressed we are, the greater the tendency to simplify.

Evolution does not demand perfection. It only requires that enough survive to keep the species alive.

That idea demands a lot of attention. Over and over again, through every level of complexity present in both genetics and culture.

The really difficult bit is – we are changing contexts – rapidly, profoundly, necessarily.

Our ancestors did not evolve in a context of cell phones, capital markets, electric vehicles, the internet. There are no historical precedents for these or many other emerging realities of our existence.

How many people have any reasonable understanding of how the technology of our modern world actually works?

Do you understand the mathematical description of quantum tunneling that makes transistors work, and thence all modern electronics?

How about the information theory behind signal discrimination in noisy environments?

How about network theory, games theory, topological theory in non-determinant logics?

If you understand all of those, then what about evolutionary theory?

Do you really understand that every level of complexity in evolved systems emerges from and is sustained by a new level of cooperation between the previous level of agents/actors?

Do you really understand that any level of agent or strategy that “cheats” on the level of “cooperation” required for that level is a threat to that entire level of complexity?

Do you really understand that competition is necessarily destructive of both complexity and freedom, unless it is firmly based in cooperation between all agents at that level?

Do you really “see” why the emergence of new levels of complexity in the evolutionary record has been so slow, how difficult it is to meet all of those necessary sets of conditions, and maintain them?

The logic of that holds in all classes of logic I have explored; I have no reasonable doubt remaining.

In terms of complex systems, breaking it down to the simplest possible useful principles, it is cooperation (not competition) that is foundational to the emergence and survival of complexity (all levels, all classes, necessarily).

Every level of complexity, every level of structure, must have effective cheat detection and mitigation systems if it is to survive long term. And anything that is not cooperating with all other levels of agents, is, by definition, “cheating”.

Go back and read that last paragraph again. Repeat as often as required.

How are you, personally, doing on that? All levels!

How about the institutions you work in, those you interact with?

We are the most cooperative species on the planet, and we are at extreme risk from our deeply evolved tendency to over simplify that which is truly complex.

We, each and every one of us, contain multiple levels of systems that tend to do that in some contexts.

We, as societies, need to have systems that minimise the incidence of such contexts.

That means reducing the stress on all levels, classes and instances of individuals to the minimum possible.

That means meeting the reasonable needs of all levels and classes and instances of agents for the material necessities of existence and for reasonable levels of freedom and responsibility.

And that demands responsibility from all classes of agents – and one expression of that must mean limiting reproduction to that which which is actually sustainable in context.

If you understand this much, then you have a useful approximation to knowledge, a useful epistemology.

In our current complex world, anything significantly less than this actually imposes existential level risk to all levels and classes of agents.

Being human is deeply more complex than most have ever considered the possibility of.

Just because we have simple stories about it, that doesn’t mean that what lies underneath those stories is simple.

Epistemology seems to be our stories about what makes stories possible, and we have already validated far more of those than any human mind could possibly have made themselves aware of. There really is that much new stuff emerging all the time.

So we all need to accept ignorance and humility, as necessary eternal aspects of being, even when aspects of our subconscious brains demand and declare certainty, we need to see them for the necessary simplifications that they are. And sometimes survival demands that we act upon them – but not nearly so often as some aspects of our subconscious would have us believe.

There is room for a great deal of diversity in reality.

Reality does not demand that everything resolves down to a simple right or wrong, even if aspects of our subconscious scream at us that it is so (the more stressed we are, the louder they scream).

This seems to be part of what it is to be a story telling ape, a modern human being in a complex and rapidly changing techno-social set of systems. A set of environments changing so rapidly (necessarily) that there really is no historical precedent available.

In such a reality, we are all going to make mistakes, that much is inevitable.

If we are all looking out for each other, to the best of our limited and fallible abilities; if we are all being responsible, again to the best of our limited and fallible abilities, and if we all do our best to accept and respect all levels and classes of diversity that must result from any real expression of liberty (that are not an actual and unreasonable threat to our existence); then we just might have a future that is better than most imagine possible.

And it really does seem to be the case that there is no singular “Right” way of being; it really does demand cooperation, responsibility and acceptance from each and every one of us, each to the best of our necessarily limited and fallible abilities.

Reality really does seem, beyond any shadow of remaining reasonable doubt, to be that complex.

Comment and critique welcome

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