On Philosophy

August 14, 2007

A Little Knowledge Is A Confusing Thing

Filed under: General Philosophy — Peter @ 12:00 am

Having no information is better than being misinformed. With no information at least you are aware of the limits of your own knowledge. But if you are misinformed you will think that you know more than you do, and that knowledge may itself leads to further false beliefs. And if this misinformation remains undetected for too long it becomes internalized and is harder to correct. Fortunately we don’t encounter too much flat-out misinformation.

However, while flat-out misinformation is rare, incomplete explanations are common, and they are a kind of misinformation. An incomplete explanation is when a complicated situation is stripped of much of its complexity, for whatever reason. To find one simply pick up any popular science book, which are a common sources of such incomplete explanations. The problem with incomplete explanations is not that they are intentionally out to deceive people, but that they have the tendency to mislead people despite the author’s best intentions. This occur, in part, because these incomplete explanations leave out all the complicated details, by design, but often the complicated details make a difference; if they didn’t they wouldn’t be part of the theory in the first place. But the person presented with an incomplete explanation generally does not know what details are missing (because even that would be too much detail), and so goes on to blissfully misapply the theory without being aware of it. Another problem is that incomplete explanations tend to focus on the most astonishing or interesting features of the theory being explained, which makes for an interesting read, but often leads to confusion and misinterpretations.

The most common example of this is quantum physics (which replaced relativity as the primary offender). Everyone thinks they understand quantum physics, but few people really do. This makes quantum physics the bane of philosophers, not because quantum physics itself has unpleasant implications, but because everyone and their brother thinks that they can apply their incomplete understanding of it to philosophy. I don’t fully understand quantum physics either, but fortunately I know enough to know what I don’t know. What I do know is how quantum mechanics is mathematically formalized, but I don’t know how to solve the wave equation in any but the simplest circumstances (because I don’t know enough to calculate the energy properties of the system), and I don’t know how quantum field theory works in any but the most general terms. But that puts me a couple steps ahead of most people, who think, for example, that Schrödinger’s cat is both alive and dead. It’s not, it’s in a superposition of being alive and dead. And if you don’t know the difference between being in a superposition of having two properties and having two properties is then you don’t understand what a superposition is. Which is not a crime, but it means that it is necessary to learn more about quantum mechanics or to refrain from trying to apply it. Now I don’t mean to come off as high and mighty, once I was that confused about quantum mechanics. I had read quite a number of books about quantum mechanics and had the impression that I knew all I needed to know about it. But relatively recently I had the need to actually learn some quantum mechanics, meaning some of the actual math, and, after several weeks of hard work, I came to realize that I had been an idiot without knowing it. So don’t be like me, start by learning actual quantum physics and skip the popular science books.

But what do I care about quantum physics? Well people misunderstanding quantum physics really isn’t that important to me, rarely has the inability to do quantum physics properly hurt anyone, and physics is not my area of professional concern. But the same problem plagues philosophy to an extent, although for slightly different reasons. Unlike physics most people don’t read “popular” versions of philosophy, they read philosophy itself, since philosophy is usually not made opaque by technical jargon or complicated mathematics. (Except when it has to be, like yesterday, but such philosophy usually remains in journals, and rarely makes it to the books that most people read.) The problem with philosophy is simply that people don’t read enough philosophy, they read only one or two authors who they like. But, unlike physics, no single philosopher paints a complete picture. Philosophy is done differently than science, each philosopher presents their positions as true, argues for them as true, and tends to sweep any objections under the rug. This is just how we do things. But it is not usually the case that any philosopher is right. Every dead philosopher is known to be in error to some, usually significant, extent, and I expect the next generation of philosophers will fund fault with every living philosopher when we have passed away. To properly understand philosophy is not just to understand one position or one theory. To properly understand philosophy is to understand the strengths and weaknesses of different theories, to understand where they succeed and where they fail, and, most importantly, to have mastered the critical ability to properly evaluate theories without someone to point out for you where their problems lie (which requires a knowledge of where past theories have gone wrong). None of that can be accomplished by reading just a little philosophy. In fact reading philosophy may not be the right way to understand philosophy at all, because philosophy books concentrate more on presenting theories and less on critical analysis. Philosophy classes are best, but anthologies of papers are also good.

Which is why I don’t see this blog as helping people understand philosophy. I see this blog as a place to do philosophy, here I create and criticize theories, I don’t try to create a balanced view of philosophy as a whole. While this makes it a resource for understanding philosophy it certainly can’t be the only resource. On the other hand if you already understand philosophy to some extent then it is probably more interesting than reading yet another discussion and critique of Kant (unless you really love reading about Kant).

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