I figured that I needed to share another excerpt from Jonathan Rauch's book, "The Constitution of Knowledge: A Defense of Truth," that comes just before the passages I included in a previous post about this intriguing book.
Those Rules for Reality in the previous post have to be implemented by someone. That someone is the reality-based community. In another post I'll share what Rausch considers that community to be.
Basically its people who are willing to act in accord with the Constitution of Knowledge, in much the same way patriotic Americans are willing to abide by the United States Constitution. Of course, there are strong disagreements about what is constitutional and unconstitutional.
Likewise, there are strong disagreements about what is validated knowledge and what is unvalidated knowledge. But in both cases disagreements take place within the bounds of a Constitution that provides a framework and a process for arriving at agreement.
The question I'd pose to those who hold a mystical, religious, or intuitive view of reality is this: what alternative to Rauch's approach below do you suggest for determining the nature of objective reality?
Meaning, it is easy to criticize reason, rationality, facts, science, open discussion, criticism of propositions about reality, and such. But it is difficult, if not impossible, to come up with a better approach than the Constitution of Knowledge.
Read what follows.
Then, if you disagree with some of what Rausch says below, leave a comment on this post describing the nature of your disagreement. Others can then submit their own ideas. This is how knowledge is gained: by a reality-based community willing to engage in the social pursuit of truth.
What reality really is
So far, I have referred to reality and objective reality and the reality-based community without quite specifying what I mean. Now is the time to fill in that gap.
The question "What is reality?" may seem either too metaphysical to answer meaningfully or too obvious to need answering.
When most people speak colloquially of reality, they mean the world as it really is, the world "out there," the world independent of human perception and cognition, the world as we would perceive it if we perceived correctly.
Surely that is what we feel reality to be, subjectively. Colloquially, people also use the terms "real" and "reality" to convey certainty or confidence that things are the way they are.
Reality, in common parlance, is that which is reliable and intractable and cannot be wished away: the rock we stub our toe on, the abrupt encounter with the ground when we fall. As Theaetetus and Socrates pointed out, however, such colloquial definitions are not very helpful.
The whole problem is that humans have no direct access to an objective world independent of our minds and senses, and subjective certainty is no guarantee of truth. (More like the opposite, because certitude is so often misleading.)
Faced with those problems and others, philosophers and practitioners changed their approach. Instead of thinking about reality metaphysically, as an external if unknowable "world out there," they think of it epistemically, as that of which we have objective knowledge.
More specifically, they think of reality as a set of propositions (or claims, or statements) which have been validated in some way, and which have thereby been shown to be at least conditionally true -- true, that is, unless debunked.
Some propositions reflect reality as we perceive it in everyday life ("The sky is blue"). Others, like the equations on a quantum physicist's blackboard, are incomprehensible to intuition. Many fall somewhere in between.
Propositions turn out to have some interesting properties. They are infinite in number and so never scarce, but true propositions are precious and comparatively rare.
Even so, the quantity of validated propositions -- of statements considered to be part of the canon of knowledge -- far exceeds the grasp of any human individual or even any large group of individuals. Propositions are not material objects, but neither are they purely ephemeral, especially if they are true.
Karl Popper claimed they exist neither in the realm of material things nor the realm of subjective feelings and perceptions, but in a third realm of their own, "the world of objective contents of thoughts."
Popper compared human knowledge to the webs spun by spiders or the honey produced by bees: "exosomatic organs" which animals build outside their bodies.
In a similar fashion, humans create knowledge -- validated propositions -- and store their knowledge in books and equations and libraries and databases, where it exists independently of our minds and bodies and could be discovered and used by an alien species millions of years from now even if humanity were extinct.
Propositions have no volition and can do nothing on their own. Yet once they are acquired by the reality-based network, they can interact with each other across the network: the modification, acceptance, or rejection of one proposition can force adjustments to many others.
Although the network is a human creation and all its participants are people, it far surpasses the comprehension of its creators, and it undergoes a version of natural selection, driven by its own dynamics.
The reality-based network behaves like an ecosystem, producing a body of validated propositions whose composition humans can influence but not control.
That is objective reality, insofar as we can know reality. The totality of those propositions is as close as we come to objective truth.
Now, you must have noticed that a phrase I used a few paragraphs ago, "validated in some way," hides a cheat. In epistemology, the whole question is, validated in what way? As we have seen, the epistemic and social consequences of validation using, say, a tribal oracle versus an authoritarian government versus social error-seeking are different.
And the systems are in many ways incompatible with each other. If we care about knowledge, freedom, and peace, then we need to stake a strong claim: anyone can believe anything, but liberal science -- open-ended, depersonalized checking by an error-seeking social network -- is the only legitimate validator of knowledge, al least in the reality-based community.
Other communities, of course, can do all kinds of other things. But they cannot make social decisions about objective reality.
That is a very bold, very broad, very tough claim, and it goes down very badly with lots of people and communities who feel ignored or oppressed by the Constitution of Knowledge: creationists, Christian Scientists, homeopaths, astrologists, flat-earthers, anti-vaxxers, birthers, 9/11 truthers, postmodern professors, political partisans, QAnon followers, and adherents of any number of other belief systems and religions.
It also sits uncomfortably with the populist and dogmatic tempers of our time.
But like the U.S. Constitution's claim to exclusivity in governing ("unconstitutional" means "illegal," period), the Constitution of Knowledge's claim to exclusivity is its sine qua non. Defending that claim is no small task, and so we need to understand the logic which supports it.