January 05, 2006


One of the themes that (hopefully) runs through this blog is that context is vitally important to knowledge. This notion of context has important implications with respect to our notion of Truth.

Classical academic knowledge production is organized around the pursuit of Truth. In the sciences that truth is unique and fairly immutable. Popper's falsification and Kuhn's paradigms dealt blows to the notions that we can know that Truth and to its immutability. And while Science marchs on in reasonable health, concerns remain regarding exactly what priviledge we should affort to "the physics way of knowing."

As a very minor participant in discussions along these lines over the years, I have noticed that a few of my colleages and myself have developed a test that allows us to escape from the nihilist postmodern spiral that is so tempting in this debate.


At the moment, I can blame Descarte for this mess. His escape was "cogito ergo sum". Perhaps the ultimate relativistic framework?...

That escape hatch is the notion of pragmatism. This follows from considerations of why we pursue knowledge. In my view, we pursue knowledge because we believe, and to some extent experience suggests, that knowing more about our world and our place in it will allow us to improve our lot and the lot of generations to come. That is we pursue knowledge because it is useful. It allows us to predict the weather (sort of), it helps us to be more healthy, and it provides for a strong defense.

If knowledge is going to improve our lot, at some point it has to be put into action. At some point we have to be willing to accept something as true, or at least true enough, and make a decision or implement a policy. Engineers do this all of the time; problems related to the aeronautics of bees did not prevent us from building airplanes. Similarly corporate actors who are taking action with respect to greenhouse gasses are not terribly worried about the nuances. In my experience, they are acting on the first order picture (more GHG -> more uncertainty) and to the extent they worry about the detail they are making strongly hedged bets.

I think that it is important that we continue to fund and encourage our brightest minds to expand the knowledge frontiers. The leading edge of our current understanding of our world will always be confusing and, at times, things we have known for decades will turn out to be only partially correct. But at any given time, we must act on what we think we know and "Does it Work" can prove to be a more powerful discriminator in that regard than "Is it True".