Monday, 23 December 2013


12. Knowledge
Here I start a series on knowledge, learning and invention.

I adopt the constructivist view that we perceive, interpret and evaluate the world according to mental frameworks that in turn develop from interaction with the world. As a result, our ideas guide our actions but also develop from it.
Philosophically, this is related to pragmatism (going back to the ideas of e.g. John Dewey). Primarily, this is an attitude against dogma, a mentality of openness to surprise, plurality and change of ideas. It sees the knowing subject not as an autonomous, outside spectator taking an objective view of world, but as involved in it. Subject and object cannot be separated. We do not have objective knowledge of the world as it is beyond our ideas. Ideas are always preliminary and fallible, and adapt in the face of obstacles, misfits and novel opportunities.

That, I think, is also how entrepreneurs operate.
These views stand in contrast with, among other things, economic theory with its assumption that actions are based on prior, given knowledge and preferences.

This is important especially in innovation, where there is radical uncertainty: what may happen and what one may choose from are largely unknown prior to choice and arise from action after a choice is made. This yields a fundamental problem for the idea of rational choice to which economics is committed.
Another consequence is that since people develop their ideas along different paths of life, their ideas will differ to the extent that they developed in different circumstances. In other words, there is greater or lesser cognitive distance between them. I will discuss that notion in more detail later.

Now, if we cannot claim to know reality objectively, does the notion of reality still make sense? I think it does, a follows. Although we cannot know reality as it is in itself, it is reasonable to assume that there is a reality and that we develop our ideas from interaction with it. In that sense reality has a causal influence on our ideas, and our ideas ‘have something to do’ with reality. If in evolution the development of our ideas had not been adequate enough to the world for us to survive we would not be here.

The fact that different people view the world differently does not imply relativism in the sense that any idea is as good as any other and rational debate is impossible. On the contrary, precisely because we have no rock-bottom objective knowledge, the only chance we have for correcting our mistakes is debate with people who have learned to see the world differently. 

We cannot achieve truth in the old sense of some correspondence between basic ideas with items in reality, from which we construct knowledge. As a result, facts become problematic. They are always constructed. However, in debates between competing theoretical perspectives, one can often reasonably agree on what facts to accept, since the facts are more stable and reliable than theoretical speculation, even if they are not rock-bottom objective.
This yields the notion of truth as warranted assertability, which is a coherence theory of truth. We argue on the basis of everything we can muster that may be relevant: whatever facts we can agree on, even if only temporarily, alternative views and explanations, arguments of relevance, arguments of logic, and arguments of efficiency in reasoning. This yields no guarantee of agreement. There will remain rival views. But debate helps to reduce disagreement and to raise doubt.

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