Saturday, 16 August 2014

Sun setting on the Knowledge Society? Part 2

Plato Silanion Musei Capitolini MC1377.jpg
What can Plato tell us about
today? (Commons)
In yesterday's post, I presented a set of scenarios with a common theme; a misinformed or downright lying erudite claims to know a way out of life-threatening problems (or 'professionally' dismisses the problem entirely) that is at odds with logic. Are we to treat such thinking as equal to that of our poor problem solver? Can such a society survive?

Enter Plato, who attempted to define what exactly makes up true knowledge, or he sometimes put it, 'justified true belief'. Without delving into too much technicalities (I'm only a generalist/medical student after all), Plato detailed in one of his well known works Republic the analogy or theory of the divided line. In it he imagines a line that can be divided into two parts; the upper part represents knowledge or absolutes grounded in such things as mathematical reasoning and philosophical understanding (these actually represent subdivisions of the upper line and are a matter of some controversy but in short the upper line is generally as such).

The lower line represents the visible, perceived world. It constitutes belief and opinion based on mere perception. To understand this, consider the blue sky above. You could imagine that the sky is indeed a solid dome of blue sapphire (maybe even seven heavens for that matter) that encloses our space and prevents demons from entering our realm of existence. But we all know that's not true but how?

Plato also detailed similar ideas in the allegory of the cave which you can watch in the following short video:
The shadows on the walls of the prisoner's cave represents the lower part of the divided line. I suspect that if someone were to leave people to view perceptions with just mere beliefs (of visible things), they would end up with a lot of undesirable conclusions. Likewise, we see this playing out in the world today. The sight of one's healthy family in West Africa leads an educated people (or admittedly non-educated but sane at least) to conclude that Ebola doesn't exist. Or the sight of dead children on the streets of Gaza can lead one to believe that Israel doesn't care where it hits (which is obviously false) and so on.

These undesirable conclusions open up a Pandora's box of troubles. The enormity of this year's Ebola outbreak may have something to do with such sentiments on an individual as well as a regional level. The perpetual conflict in the Middle east and North Africa may be because we are looking at the shadows and not looking for the old men to lead us to the answers. We (the international community) think we know the truth because we focus on the shadows (the mass media reports and the social media reports). Given the advances in media technology, this is dangerous because the prisoners can shout down the enlightened more effectively, a capability well exploited by the ISIS group in Iraq.

So here's what could happen; we could all get wiped out by Ebola, whole civilisations can get destroyed (cue the mass exodus in Iraq) and there could be a slow slide into stagnation. I would like to revisit this last possibility in a future post.

How can we save the knowledge society? I sincerely don't know but I guess it will involve a lot of perseverance and backing up of books, files and other materials.

Sun setting on the Knowledge Society? Part 1

Imagine a situation where you are confronted with a grave problem. So grave that solving it in a smart and concise manner becomes a life and death situation. Can't think of any? Allow me to offer some scenarios; on an International level the current Ebola virus outbreak in West Africa is one. On a regional level the current crisis in Iraq would qualify as a life and death situation for many people living there and even beyond. Or at an even smaller scale, the current escalation of conflict between Israel and the Hamas-led political entity in Gaza would constitute a life and death situation for the Israelis as well as the local Palestinian Arab population.

Now imagine further that you, the knowledgeable problem solver in one or more of the above situations, in the course of fulfilling your analytical duties are interrupted suddenly by someone of equal or even greater erudition than you and is told by said person that you are solving all this wrong and that you will fail. He even offers an alternative plan and insists that you use follow it instead. 

Now you being of good sport decide to listen to his idea and quickly decide that is in error due to perhaps some erroneous or even naive assumptions and you engage your polemics gear and start to explain to him the true nature of the problem. But your friend remains resolute. In fact he might even engage in ad hoc arguments or throw around straw man arguments and after a long, tiring and utterly pointless battle (meanwhile the problem persists), you finally shout:

Now what just happened? Lets look at our erudite friend's assumptions that so pissed off our knowledgeable problem solver; for the Ebola scenario, the erudite declared unabashedly that Ebola doesn't exist. What?! 'You must be mad', you say. This has unfortunately happened before with regards to the AIDS pandemic in South Africa, a most embarrassing scene to say the least.

Scenario two, the Iraqi problem; ISIS, the Islamist militant group that has resurrected the old Islamic Caliphate is declared a Zionist plot (without evidence) to make Islam look bad. But anyone who reads about ISIS's origins knows that that cannot be true.

Scenario three, Hamas isn't a problem; it is the Israelis who are doing indiscriminate killing. While we can acknowledge that the war's civilian casualties on both sides are regrettable (while remembering that it is a war and wars are always cruel no matter the guidelines), we must also acknowledge that this statement is utterly false not just because of what the Israelis say but because of what objective statistical evidence says. 'But look at the dead children', you might shout at our poor problem solver but he might have every right to tell you to look at the evidence and reconsider your stance objectively.

All these examples (and there are plenty more in various fields) are based on real life, not fiction and they serve to illustrate what a certain ancient Greek philosopher said over 2300 years ago and to explain why we might have left our burgeoning knowledge society open to potential calamity. We shall see what Plato had to say about our problem solver' societal problem in part 2.

Good day to you all.