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Posted by Paul R. Martin on November 12, 2001 19:31:09 UTC

Hi Alan,

I don't know how to respond. The short answer would be, yes, I suppose that what you wrote might sort of describe the essence of it. But that would only be a guess.

Let me jump up one notch in abstraction and try to write something I have been meaning to attempt to write to Luis. Luis, if you are reading, this is for you too.

Disclaimer: I have no credentials or education in the subject I am about to discuss, so I may not use the correct terminology, or I might be bringing up ideas that have long since been discarded, but if so, I apologize and I stand to learn something if nothing else.

The question I would like to pose is, How do we know anything?

In my opinion, the answer is that we know some (maybe just one) very rudimentary fact(s) directly and we can never know anything beyond that for sure.

But, practically speaking, we can know many things with varying degrees of certainty even though we may know nothing with absolute 100% certainty. If the numbers get very high for some important "knowledge" then in many cases it turns out very useful to us. That "knowledge" allows us to land craft on asteroids, engineer organisms genetically, etc.

So how do we come to "know" some of these things at a high level of certainty? Well, here's how I think it happens. Let's take as an example some hypothetical "fact", F1, that we have come to "know" at a 99.9% level of certainty.

It starts with someone noticing some interesting things. These things may have little or no relationship to F1. The person attempts to communicate what he noticed to someone else. In order to do that, he must first choose symbols to name the things involved in his observation and then to describe what he observed using those names. The description, in order to make any sense to anyone else, must be a metaphor or an analogy or a comparison with some other thing with which the second person is already familiar.

Once a group of people have thus become familiar with whatever the observation was, other observations will be compared to this one and to each other. In doing so, observations of a higher order will be made by someone. That is, patterns in the patterns themselves will be observed. These in turn will be named and the patterns will be described by comparing or relating them to other patterns that have already become familiar to the group of people. This continues in the same way through many higher orders of abstraction.

Sooner or later, someone will predict some future state based on experience with patterns of observation over a considerable period of time. If the prediction bears out, the prediction and the guy who made it will be noticed by other people. If the prediction turns out to be useful, then the method of making the prediction will be learned and adopted by many people.

After thus learning and adopting many such methods of predicting future states, someone will come up with a method of describing the particular patterns of initial states and the method of predicting resulting future states that together make up our fact, F1.

Seen another way, the knowledge of F1 begins with an observation on someone's part. This is followed by wonder or amazement and it prompts people to idly speculate on ways of describing and making predictions about the consequences of what was observed. This prompts someone to test the predictions to see which, if any, comes true. It prompts others to define measurements so that the description of the phenomena involved can be communicated more precisely. This allows for more precise verification of the prediction. And it ultimately allows us to make a claim such as the claim of 99.9% accuracy.

Now, in this whole chain of discovery, there are many roles. There are the casual observers, the careful observers, the communicators, the skeptics, the idle speculators, the formulators of predictive theories, the experimenters who check out the predictions, and the ones who provide the mathematical and analytical tools in order to make the predictions and measurements precise.

(It was in this context, Luis, that I seriously asked your opinion on the role of idle speculation in an earlier post.)

I think you and I, Alan, are idle speculators who toss around imprecise and unclear ideas which to us seem to have some possibility of leading to some more or less accurate knowledge. Dick on the other hand goes beyond idle speculation and uses the very powerful tools of mathematics to come up with explanatory ideas in a more precise way.

You and I have two distinct handicaps in attempting to come to an agreement with Dick:

1) We have only ill-defined terms and imprecise analogies as tools to use attempting to communicate what we think we "know" to Dick.

2) We do not have the necessary math and physics education in order for us to understand what he is attempting to communicate to us.

In spite of those handicaps, I think it is fair to say that, yeah, I think we each sort of understand what the others are saying. But, I think that is about as far as it will go.

Warm regards,


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