Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Evolution and knowledge

Sometimes I'm a bit slow to catch on. I don't always have time to follow up on interesting things. So, it's only recently that I looked into the concept of "reality-based community" posted on so many of the blogs I read. Apparently the term arose in the fall of 2004 following a NY Times article in which an unnamed aide to Bush is quoted:

The aide said that guys like me were "in what we call the reality-based community," which he defined as people who "believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality." ... "That's not the way the world really works anymore," he continued. "We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do."

This would be funny if it weren't so scarey. I'm fine with the contrast between faith-based and reality-based. And I'm firmly situated in the reality-based community. But it's truly frightening to hear someone in government say "...we create our own reality."

I always enjoy discussions of evolution and creationism. My friend, Bill (whose picture I posted here), is a retired Cornell biologist. He was internationally renowned in the field of behavioral evolution and nearly everything I know about evolution I learned from him. It's easy to love a framework of knowledge that makes as much sense as evolution. I especially liked his response to a graduate student in the throes of angst about the meaning of life. "Life is just a gene's way of getting more genes." It takes a lot of the heat off the decision of "What should I do today?" Today economist Brad DeLong is writing about evolution here.

When I'm pondering how to influence someone who's views are very different from mine, I usually come to the question of knowledge vs belief. It's relatively easy to influence someone whose ideas are based on knowledge. But so often you come to the place where differences of opinion are based, not on knowledge, but on belief. So, what's the difference?

I know there's a whole branch of philosophy devoted to knowledge, but I'm not well educated in this area. There are things I know because I've experienced them, i.e. if I touch the hot stove I'll burn my hand. And there are things I know 'cause someone I trust told me so and it makes sense: some American colonists were outraged by the Stamp Act. And there are things I believe, without any rational basis, because they work for me: educated is better than uneducated. My sister still disagrees with me regarding "clean is better than dirty." Notice the word in common here: "better." Eventually evidence accumulates and some beliefs become knowledge. I think I was eight when I realized it's not the bending trees making the wind blow, but the other way around. And I'm still not sure exactly why that's true.

But in the end, I don't know how to influence people who cannot incorporate knowledge into beliefs.

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