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When do your beliefs become knowledge?

I’ve been reading a lot of philosophy lately — Kierkegaard and Dawkins, Lewis, Hume, Calvin and Augustine, you name it — for a class I’m taking, as well as for my own enjoyment. One of the interesting things about philosophy is that it’s a discipline that takes the understanding of understanding seriously. As a teacher, that’s fascinating to me; has education — specifically, the way we in 2009 are trying to educate — really examined what knowledge is? Have educational systems considered what the wealth of literature says about knowledge, and responded to it responsibly?

[A few important insertions: I'm not supposing that to respond to philosophical ideas about knowledge, education needs to change. I am suggesting, though, that a responsible response entails understanding the arguments, and either adhering to them, or forming a sound counter-argument to explain abandoning them.]

Two theses in particular caught my attention. First, Thomas Reid makes this astounding statement (cited from Thomas Reid’s Inquiry and Essays (1975), p. 275):

Another first principle is–That the natural faculties, by which we distinguish truth from error, are not fallacious.

What does this say? It says that our natural senses don’t tend to fail us. Now, I know, many of you are freaking out over this quote, especially in light of particle physics or molecular biology. And we can argue that over a good cup of coffee. But I will suggest that Reid is right in the macro-world.

falling-piano.jpg

I see a piano falling, I rightly assume several things:

1. It is indeed falling, and I am not instead rushing up toward it.

2. That piano is dangerous to be under, given that it’s falling.

There are plenty of other observations, but you get the idea.

So why does this matter? Well, how much do we allow the learner’s senses (and by senses, I don’t mean “ears listening to 90 minutes of lecture”) engage in a typical learning environment? How much do we allow the natural faculties to assert themselves, create knowledge, and then refine and provide context for the knowledge already gained?

I think it’s an important question. I think Dan Meyer is a master at this (check out his blog for some amazing examples of using pictures to stimulate learning). How are you doing this? What effect on education would an increased (as in, significantly more than you’re currently doing) amount of sensory learning create?

Let me know what you think. Oh, and as for my other philosophical quote that I think is important? More on that later this week…

  • Bill

    You might be interested in The Montessori Method.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Montessori_method

    “One distinguishing feature of the Montessori method, at the pre-school age, is that children direct their own learning, choosing among the sections of a well-structured and stocked classroom, the curriculum including Practical Life (fine and gross motor skills), Sensorial (senses and brain), Language, Mathematics, Geography, Science, and Art.”

  • http://www.gerv.net/ Gerv

    “That the natural faculties, by which we distinguish truth from error, are not fallacious.”

    Many great philosophers down the centuries would disagree that you can just assert that as a first principle. Plato, for example.

    I would also add that it’s incompatible with naturalistic evolution as an account of human origins. If it were evolutionarily advantageous for us to believe something about the world that was not true, evolution suggests our senses would evolve to make us believe it.

  • http://radar.oreilly.com Brett McLaughlin

    Gerv-

    The position from evolution is untenable, and why few modern evolutionists with real philosophical grounding argue it. Richard Dawkins, for example, argues against many positions, but would never assert that evolution is ridding us of fallacious beliefs; his new book against theism is a clear proclamation that he things he needs to engage in that discussion himself. If evolution was taking care of making his very own beliefs supreme, he wouldn’t waste valuable time arguing the case; he’d merely wait for all of us that disagree with him to die out :-) Reading the November 2006 issue of Wired is instructional in this regard.

    Arguing from the logical, if the evolutionary position is truly causing and developing a sensual response toward what is true, then it becomes a defeater for itself. The majority of the world is theistic, suggesting that evolution is generating a belief in something that, if it is true, at its most basic undermines the very process you’re arguing for (evolution).*

    Ok, now that we’ve each fired a fairly light salvo, let’s agree to argue philosophy elsewhere :-) The point of this post is merely to suggest that in many cases, we are not creating an environment that facilitates the use of our senses (however they were designed or evolved) in a manner that engages them, rather than works against them.

    * Theistic evolution in evolutionary and intelligent design circles is seen mostly as a joke.

  • http://dysplastic-brain.blogspot.com Bob Calder

    While observation from direct contact is *usually* reliable, observation from a photograph is less reliable than it used to be. Trivial, but it give me the opening to say that the further we get from measurement, the less reliable our knowledge can be.

    One place we fall short today is valuing opionion as if it were worthwhile in all instances.

    I would say that our beliefs become knowledge when the phenomenon that accounts for them is measured against a group standard. For instance, science is a process of accounting for consensus building upon repeated observation.

    Any ontology has to take into consideration the distance it stands from direct measurment and not make false claims. In this way, not knowing is as important as knowing.

  • http://toughloveforxerox.blogspot.com Michael J

    Re the issue of using our senses to earn knowledge.

    It’s become pretty well established by now that all of our senses, not just our eyes and ears transmit signals that create neural networks in the brain that connect stories and stories about stories.

    It’s that nexus of overlapping sometimes contradictory stories that create what we experience as consciousness.

    It’s also pretty well established that muscle memory and watching a mentor transmits huge amounts of signals that can result in new behavior.

    In that context the issue of movement and sensory input in education is understand as “different learning styles.” The best recent discussion is in Clay Christensen’s latest, Disrupting Class.

  • http://toughloveforxerox.blogspot.com Michael J

    I apologize for the double post, but wanted to add just one more thought:

    Beliefs become knowledge when they enable behavior that can reasonably predict the consequences of present behavior. It’s true for scientists. It’s true for high school kids.

  • http://dysplastic-brain.blogspot.com Bob Calder

    Michael, I feel it is necessary for a definition of science and the building of knowledge to encompas social behaviour. I can see how social interaction can happen as predicting consequences iterates outside or after internal knowledge is built.

    Unfortunately the social part of science (publication) is often left off definitions.

  • http://www.gerv.net/ Gerv

    Brett: where did you get the idea I was arguing for evolution (as an account of origins)? :-) I was pointing out the incompatibility as food for thought for those who do.

    I know Dawkins doesn’t argue that evolution rids us of fallacious beliefs. But not to do so undermines his own arguments. As you probably know :-)

  • http://twitter.com/kangarooo Kangarooo

    Your beliefs become other people knowledge when they loose theyr beliefs and they can be lost in school ;)

  • Reedo

    Hands-on learning, socratic method, multiple intelligences, picture > 1000 words, etc.

    If we’re getting philosophical about it, then I assume you’ve read at least an outline of Kant’s opinions (and Popper’s)? The fact is that much interpretation goes on even in viewing a static picture in your “macro-world”, and the categories and strategies we use for doing so are an unavoidable part of the process. To understand is to perhaps be wrong. In the case of assuming that the sun revolves around the Earth and/or that the Earth is in any way centrally located in the universe, incredibly wrong. So, using the senses to fully engage the brain? Good. Even better? Pairing it with explanation so the observer doesn’t misinterpret. Tech example: ASP.Net WebForms, when they work great, can lead the naive to think it’s “just like a client GUI app”, only to have this illusion be smashed into many pieces a short while later.

  • http://greenbananablog.org Dallas McPheeters

    Einstein overcame the barrier of the obvious in order to postulate the nonsensical and come up with the special theory of relativity which states NOT that everything is relative but that “appearances” are relative. Therefore knowledge intrinsically is subjective and dependent on the state of motion of the observer. And even so, his theory was not about that which is relative but rather that which is absolute. Of course I speak on a quantum level, not a newtonian, macroscopic one (illustrated by the falling piano).

    :-)
    D

  • consacepo

    Re the issue of using our senses to earn knowledge.

    It’s become pretty well established by now that all of our senses, not just our eyes and ears transmit signals that create neural networks in the brain that connect stories and stories about stories.

    It’s that nexus of overlapping sometimes contradictory stories that create what we experience as consciousness.

    It’s also pretty well established that muscle memory and watching a mentor transmits huge amounts of signals that can result in new behavior.

    In that context the issue of movement and sensory input in education is understand as “different learning styles.” The best recent discussion is in Clay Christensen’s latest, Disrupting Class.

    consacepo