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How Do We Know What We Know?

Mises Daily: Wednesday, October 27, 2010 by


[Speech given at The Economic Recovery: Washington's Big Lie, the Supporters Summit for the Ludwig von Mises Institute, October 8, 2010.]

When I first offered this title for my talk, it was suggested that I add the question "how do we know when the state is lying?" I don't know if this was an effort to limit my presentation to 30 seconds, for I could summarize my answer in the classic words of my favorite stand-up philosopher, George Carlin, "my first rule: I don't believe anything the government tells me."

Kurt Vonnegut offered similar advice. While traveling back to America at the end of World War II, Vonnegut asked a friend what he had learned from his wartime experiences. "Never to believe anything my government tells me," the friend answered. Because the state is grounded in such a network of lies, contradictions, deceptions, and conflicts, it is safe to say that political systems are inherently in conflict with reality and must resort to intentional distortions of truth as a way of trying to appear coherent to a gullible public.

The "big lie," as defended by Adolf Hitler, has long been a tool of statism. The more "colossal" the lie, Hitler intoned, the greater the propensity for Homo boobus to believe it. Because human beings are accustomed to telling small lies, but would be embarrassed to tell outlandish ones, so Hitler reasoned, the great lie acquires credibility.

For this reason, the lies that have been inseparable from the truth surrounding 9/11 continue to be accepted by vast numbers of Americans. Likewise, the state-serving myth that global warming is the product of human activity continues to be recited by politicians and other government officials, academics, and members of the media, despite the refutations offered by literally hundreds of highly respected scientists who have refused to be baptized into the secular religion of Algoreism. With the surface temperatures of Mars increasing, and its polar ice melting, I have heard none of the high-church environmentalists respond to my claim that this proves the existence of humanlike beings — with their SUVs and aerosol sprays — on Mars! In so many ways are intelligent people reminded to be skeptical of consensus-based definitions of reality.

State action does to the harmonious order of human society what the throwing of a rock through the network of a spider web does: it disrupts — and sometimes destroys — existing patterns of interconnectedness. Nowhere is this more evident than in the political manipulation of and interference with the informal order of the marketplace. With the help of a mainstream media and academia, the state resorts to all kinds of fabrications to convince us of the magnificence of the emperor's new clothing.

Alternative technologies — particularly the Internet — make it so much easier to uncover and reveal the systematic lying necessary to the success of political entities. A libertarian newscaster friend once told me, "I have been tempted to go on the air and say 'good morning, and here are the lies your government would like you to believe today.'" Jon Stewart's The Daily Show is now a perennial award winner for television news reporting; the habitual lying engaged in by government official continues to erode the credibility of the media, the state, and its academic lackeys. The respect once enjoyed by these major sources of information in our world has been in sharp decline in the Internet years.

The rapidly diminishing circulations of major newspapers and viewers of network-television newscasts are due not only to the parallel competition provided by the Internet but also to a widespread awakening of the dishonest nature of what the established media report. Nor can we forget the widespread challenge to statism reflected in Ron Paul's efforts, an undertaking that the political parties and the media try to deflect into the harmless babblings of Sarah Palin. I don't know which is the more fitting metaphor for our times: (a) the manner in which the Russian people regularly laughed at government "newscasts," or (b) that poignant scene at the end of Orwell's Animal Farm, as the powerless farm animals look in the window of the farmhouse to see the ruling pigs partying with the hated humans.

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In these early years of the fourth stage of the "information revolution," we are once again encountering a truth made evident by Johann Gutenberg: information is very liberating. For this same reason, the political establishment has long adhered to Mark Twain's advice: "Truth is the most valuable thing we have. Let us economize it."

As it always has, the state seeks to protect itself from the harsh realities of truth by warring against persons and systems that contradict the self-serving mindset it requires for an obedient and servile public. Proposals have been made, by those in power, to give the president the authority to shut down the Internet — in the name of "national security," of course. One of the proponents of this measure, Senator Joe Lieberman, went so far as to make a favorable comparison to the Chinese government, which "can disconnect parts of its Internet in case of war and we need to have that here too."

That little criticism of this plan — or of Lieberman's defense of it — has been offered within the mainstream media (for whom the demise of the Internet would be competitively advantageous) provides insight into the confrontation between those whose desire it is to inform others and those who want to be keepers of the thoughts of others. As there will always be practitioners of free expression and seekers of truth among us, and as I have more trust and confidence in the nerds, geeks, and hackers who are forever looking to expand the capacities of computer technologies, I suspect that the efforts of the established order to silence those who ask questions will fail.

The state's war against truth seeking is also seen in its reptilian reaction to the Wikileaks phenomenon; the state's continuing efforts to classify its activities as "secret" — lest boobus discover the real nature of the state; and, more recently, the Pentagon's buying and destroying all of Anthony Shaffer's (no relation) revelatory book about the underside of US activities in Afghanistan. That members of the political establishment are so economically illiterate as to fail to see how this book burning will only increase demand for the book — a demand I suspect the publisher will be eager to satisfy — should encourage those of us who love the marketplace!

In this respect, the Pentagon has placed itself in the same position that Bill O'Reilly did when, at the outset of the war against Iraq, he urged all good patriotic types to buy French wines and pour them down the sewer to punish the French for not having joined in the war effort! That will teach them a lesson! I have three books that have been published, none of which have received much attention. Perhaps I can persuade the Pentagon and Bill O'Reilly to undertake a campaign to have Americans buy copies of my books and conduct highly publicized book burnings thereof!

All in all, I found Karen Kwiatkowski's recent LRC blog post more to my liking. In explaining the efforts of those in power to suppress uncomfortable information, she reminded us that

those boys and girls in DC are just like us! They just want to be left alone, to conduct their business and nurture their friendships, to make their way in the world without having someone always looking over their shoulder, and judging them. It's actually kind of sweet, don'tcha think?

For the aforesaid reasons, the systematic lying associated with political systems troubles me less than do the efforts of statists to undertake their programs even with the very best of intentions. I am willing, for the sake of discussion, to grant the political classes the most honest and sincere of motives — to presume that they really want to promote the best possible conditions in the world for all of mankind. That I don't truly believe this is another matter. For my purposes, here, I am prepared to give the statists the benefit of the doubt as to their motivations.

The most damaging falsehood associated with government action is the belief — common to the entire institutional order — that social order is dependent upon pyramidal, vertical power structures. This premise generates societal disorder because of two factors: (1) the refusal of the system to respect the inviolability of property interests, which, in turn, is destructive of individual liberty — about which I have written extensively elsewhere — and (2) the point upon which I am focusing today: the epistemological problems associated with presuming the capacity to predict the outcomes of complex relationships.

If we understood the lesson from the study of chaos, namely, that complex behavior always produces unpredictable consequences, we might be less arrogant in our efforts to mandate the behavior of people. More than that, if we understood just how inherently and unavoidably limited is our knowledge of the world, we might be less hubristic in our insistence upon managing the lives of others.

For example, as the federal government was finalizing its plans for the construction of a nuclear-waste-storage facility in Yucca Mountain, Nevada, a federal court directed the Department of Energy to predict the consequences that would be generated for a period of time ranging from 300,000 to 1,000,000 years. To most of us who have a sense of responsibility for our actions, it seems that the court's order was premised on the importance of considering long-term costs. The troublesome implications of this judicial response have to do with the court's sense that governments are capable of accurately predicting the course of events for the next 1,000,000 years. My study of geology, as well as of human existence on earth, convinces me otherwise.

Bearing in mind that human beings have likely been on this planet for anywhere from 200,000 to 1,000,000 years (depending upon whether various skeletal remains are to be defined as "human" or of earlier species), the court is attempting to direct the outcome of human action for a time period equal to mankind's entire history. Furthermore, the court is presuming a kind of geologic and climatic stability that fails to consider such factors as plate tectonics, earthquakes, and volcanoes; of continental drift and the magnetic reversals of the poles; periodic ice ages and massive flooding; periods of solar flares; the comets and asteroids that have occasionally hit the earth; the cutting-and-filling nature of rivers which, along with the continuing processes of wind and water erosion, continually refigure the face of the planet.

To put such inconstancies into the context of the court's order, you should know that, during the last one million years, there have likely been ten major ice ages; the meteor that hit in Arizona and created the giant crater there probably did so about 200,000 years ago; the volcanic eruption that destroyed the island of Krakatoa and produced long-term and worldwide climatic effects, including tsunamis as distant as South Africa, occurred but 127 years ago. Yucca Mountain itself was created by a number of volcanic eruptions.

There are so many interconnected, variable, and unknown factors at work in nature — including the myriad consequences of human action — that it borders on magical thinking to believe that one can anticipate the playing out of this constantly changing interplay over such an extended period of time. We are fortunate to get accurate predictions of next week's weather; expecting government agencies to prognosticate over a one-million-year period becomes a test of our sense of humor!

A belief in absolute truths, coupled with a self-righteous resolve to enforce such views upon the world, is a pathology that must be confronted head on if we are to preserve any semblance of humanity. If we are to overcome our lemming-like march into mutual self-destruction, we must begin at the source of the problem. The relevant question, in my view, is this: is it possible for us to have an empirical understanding of the world, or to act upon the basis of philosophical principles and values, other than through our subjective understanding? Are there such qualities as "objective" truths — be they empirical or moral — that operate in the world outside of our own mind?

In the realm of economics, are there objective values to be ascribed to goods and services that are apart from the values given them by freely contracting parties? Indeed, though we can speak of the "price" arrived at in a transaction as objective, is it not evident that the value given to that item is not only subjective — differing in the minds of each contracting party — but, further, (a) can never equal the objective price, and (b) can never be known even to the parties involved? Is it possible for us to extend this awareness of the subjective underpinnings of economic transactions into our efforts to understand and function in the world in all other areas?

Using a dictionary definition, are there "truths" in the world that "exist independently of mind?" If there are, can we know of such matters other than through our individualized opinions? I believe that everything you or I can know about the world — whether in the form of empirical information or philosophic principles — derive from our subjective experiences, and nothing more.

To begin with, the very concept of "knowledge" necessarily implies a knower. Whatever the reality that exists in the universe, there can be no knowledge of it without an observer. This is the meaning of Bishop Berkeley's teaser about the sound of a falling tree in a deserted forest: sound is something received by auditory senses. Heisenberg's uncertainty principle reminds us of the inseparable ties between the "observer" and the "observed."

"The most damaging falsehood associated with government action is the belief that social order is dependent upon pyramidal, vertical power structures."

From the moment of our birth until our death, we experience ourselves and our world — including other people — but not in the mechanistic fashion of a video camera recording sensory impressions. Rather, we interact with our world, organizing our experiences into categories and concepts by which we make comparisons and contrasts. It is the mind alone that creates these categories; they do not exist beyond the boundaries of our mind. What we think of as the world is simply that: thoughts about the world.

Learning is an art form, and, like painters and sculptors, we outwardly manifest our inner visions of the world and ourselves. We learn only because our mind is dissatisfied with its existing patterns of understanding, and wishes to create more sophisticated patterns with which to both inform and amuse itself. In accepting dogmas about "the good, the true, and the beautiful" residing outside ourselves, we have surrendered to institutions the perceptive, creative, and spiritual essence of what it means to be human.

We are seekers of information. The word "inform" means to give shape within. Within what, other than the mind? Gregory Bateson defined "information" as "differences that matter." Matter to whom? Who is it that notices the "differences," and by what criteria — and where — are distinctions and similarities to be evaluated? The current study of "chaos," or "complexity," is making us aware that conditions we have heretofore regarded as "disordered turbulence," have regularities to them that we had not previously seen. But has nature suddenly become more orderly, or has our subjective mind — with the help of computer technologies — only developed more sophisticated ways of organizing its experiences with nature?

We are also not simply the seekers but the creators of the moral and aesthetic measures by which we live what Socrates called "the examined life." We are, as the poet Seamus Heaney expressed it, the "hunters and gatherers of values." But the quest takes place within the vast expanse of the subjective mind, wherein the hunter negotiates with the world as a means of pursuing his or her sense of being.

We think dualistically and abstractly, dividing our experiences into mutually exclusive categories. The hard wiring of our brains probably prevents us from dealing with reality in any other way. Our mind needs to become aware of this inherent limitation on its capacities for dealing with the world. But the conscious mind enjoys its monopolistic position in directing our lives.

The dualistic categories we employ are determined not by the inherent nature of anything we are observing but by systems of thought that others have taught us. Are avocadoes and tomatoes "fruits" or "vegetables"? A botanist will give you one answer, while the produce manager of your local supermarket will give you another. Which one is "objectively" correct, or is there no "correct" answer beyond the subjective thoughts of the person addressing the question?

We deal with the universe abstractly, as images and concepts that our mind has created. When we are engaged in abstraction, our understanding becomes — in the words of one dictionary — "considered apart from matter or from specific examples; not concrete." Such a process is about the world, but not of it. To even distinguish a "thing" from its environment is to conceptualize it, to convert the experience into an idea. What are the qualities of any of these identified "things" that tell us what they are apart from the abstract definitions we have created in our minds?

I suspect that the main reason we do not have memories of our first days and weeks out of the womb is that we had the numerous experiences but no conceptual tools — no words — that would allow us to define, categorize, and organize these experiences. We did not have labels to attach to our world. Because of this interplay between our experiences and how those experiences have been recorded and organized through the abstractions in which we have been trained, what we are capable of knowing about the world may rise no higher than how we have subjectively defined that world.

The problem this creates for us is that our lives get so wrapped up in conceptualization, ideation, and other abstractions, that we learn to confuse how our mind has organized the world with "reality" itself. The words that we use to describe things are fundamentally different from what it is we are describing. Lest you have not learned this important lesson, let me inform you that the word water will not quench your thirst. Let me also remind you that these drinking glasses and my eye glasses are not synonymous terms, and that both are made of plastic, not glass.

The world does not inform us of its meaning — if, indeed, there is such a thing as some objective "meaning" to existence. Rather, we project onto the world the patterns we find meaningful — the ones we have put together that best explain our experiences in the world. These patterns differ from one human to another, depending upon our unique experiences. Whatever "meaning" we find in our world derives from a composite of the individual pictures each of us has put together in forming our experiences.

A classroom exercise I have used is to ask students to draw a picture of a previously undiscovered life form — one that is not simply a composite of life forms already familiar to them. They quickly discover the difficulty associated with "seeing" the universe other than in patterns that are already familiar to them.

We have all seen a small baby put some item in his mouth — and seen Aunt Edith shriek, "Look out, he's going to eat that pen!" and grab it from him. Babies are not trying to eat everything they encounter, but they are trying to discover the nature of pens — and other objects — by testing them through the sensory tool with which they have many of their earliest experiences: the sense of taste. The baby, having found out that other things placed in his mouth produced a pleasurable effect, now discovers that the pen does not and so puts it aside. He has learned an important conceptual lesson: things with nipples taste good, things with lids do not. He has also learned an important social lesson: the world is plagued by a variety of Aunt Ediths, who insist upon interfering with and restraining his life experiences!

Let me emphasize that I am not suggesting that what we think we "know" does not reflect the "real world," nor am I suggesting that there is no objective universe. I am convinced that reality does exist, for if it is only an illusion it seems to be one that we all share. I am not taking a solipsistic approach to things: I have had too many friends and relatives die — for whom I suspect reality has come to an end — while I have gone on living.

I am also not subscribing to a belief in moral relativism. Under no circumstances am I prepared to acknowledge that your values — to the degree they differ from my own — are as "good" as my values! I will go even further and assert that my values, and my principles, and my understanding of the world are superior to those of everyone else in this room. If I thought that you had knowledge, values, or principles that were superior to mine, I would adopt yours. Obviously! This is one of the ways in which we learn from one another. We deal with the world as opinion, but most of us subscribe to the view that some people's opinions (i.e., our own) are better than others. But until you are in a position to provide what my mind informs me is an improvement upon my understanding, I shall stick with my own subjective opinions — just as you will.

"Learning is an art form, and, like painters and sculptors, we outwardly manifest our inner visions of the world and ourselves."

I am insisting, however, that my understanding of whatever the universe may consist of is entirely dependent upon the content of my subjective mind, and that my expression of that understanding is but an internally constructed network of opinions. My opinions may or may not conform to the outer world, but they nonetheless remain opinions. Do we live in a geocentric or heliocentric universe, and how would we find out? How would the sky appear to us if the sun did orbit the earth? And if we are so convinced that it does not, why do we still speak of "sunrises" and "sunsets?"

I once had a discussion of this topic with a friend of mine, a man with a good understanding and confidence in the physical and biological sciences. I asked him why he believed in a heliocentric universe, when our visual observations seem to support a geocentric position. "The math supports the heliocentric view," he said. I responded: "this raises two points: (1) why do you rely upon mathematics to validate your view? After all, the Bible suggests a geocentric view. Why do you accept one source over another? Furthermore, (2) have you done the math, or have you only relied upon those who told you they have?" He knew that I agreed with his point of view, but I was desirous of prodding him with the same question I am giving to you today: how do you know what you know? How do you know that your understanding of the world is valid?

Political behavior is not the only realm in which I maintain my skepticism. In matters of religion, the sciences, politics, philosophy, etc., I remain an agnostic; I am skeptical of all that I read and hear. I must be convinced of the truth of what you tell me. But I am unable to judge the truth of any point of view other than by comparing it with the opinions I have previously put together in my mind.

While I have strong opinions on all kinds of topics, I also have a strong skepticism about my own mind, because I am aware of its limitations. It is this skepticism that underlies my anarchist sentiments, because I know that I lack the omniscience necessary for the running of your life; that your preferences and your visions are not my own; and that if we are to live free, peaceful, creative, and cooperative lives, we must abandon the kind of thinking that causes us to see others as objects to be reformed.

My science friends become ruffled when I suggest to them that, like the religionists, they ground much of their understanding in faith, as do I, as do you. My understanding of ancient history is based entirely upon what others have informed me: I was not around during the Punic Wars, nor have I had any direct experiences with the American Revolutionary War. If I had had such experiences, I would doubtless have interpreted their meaning according to my prior learning, which might very well have differed from that of a man standing next to me.

So much of what we know is based upon trust: a confidence that our parents, friends, teachers, scientists, historians, religious figures, and others have provided us with accurate and truthful information. But we must remain skeptical of all such learning, lest such sources were in error. Did King Arthur actually exist? What about Buddha, or Dracula, or Santa Claus?

After all of these years, I am convinced that human beings are driven by a need for spiritual or religious experiences — a need to transcend one's individual existence and to connect up with the universe in some way. I do not think of such needs in the way they are usually defined — as organized churches, although they might include that. These needs find expression in many ways: the need for understanding, fame, riches, and power, being among them.

The sciences are one expression of this need. When I put the book of Genesis alongside a physics book that speaks of the "big bang," I am amazed at the similar explanations for the creation of the universe: the great void followed by a great explosion of light. When my science friends remind me that echoes of this "big bang" are to be found in background radiation in the universe, I muse "perhaps God has a giant microwave." But whether we think of ourselves as "religionists" or "scientists," I believe we are engaged in the same pursuit, answers to the questions: where did it all come from, where is it all going, and what rules are in place in the present?

"While I have strong opinions on all kinds of topics, I also have a strong skepticism about my own mind, because I am aware of its limitations. It is this skepticism that underlies my anarchist sentiments."

Based upon our prior experiences, each of us has a different approach to such questions. I do not believe in a God but I do believe there is a life force in the universe. Consistent with my philosophic views generally, I do not see this life force centralized in a universal authority figure, but decentralized among us all, including — as part of the all — the flowers I watch turn their faces each day to catch the nourishment provided by the sun.

We humans are destroying ourselves through a self-righteousness grounded in a belief in objective truths, whether it comes from religious fundamentalists, advocates of "politically correct" speech and behavior, or ideologues who seek to forcibly redesign economic and social systems to suit their visions of how the world should perform. I will go even further and suggest to you that a belief in objective truths and values is consistent with political collectivism and inconsistent with individual liberty.

If "truth" and "moral principles" reside beyond the individual — and there has never been a shortage of men and women prepared to define and describe this moral order for the rest of us — why should we not want to mandate uniform, standardized social systems and practices to forcibly direct people to comply with such eternal and transcendent principles? Why would we be expected to show any tolerance for those whose ideas or conduct differed from the objective truths?

We are unable to transcend the limited capacities of our mind other than, perhaps, by becoming and remaining constantly aware of those limitations. If we can do that, we may put an end to our horribly destructive habits while, in so doing, transfusing those antilife energies into the wonderfully creative pursuits that have generated a life-sustaining civilization.

For the sake of living honestly, peacefully, and in a condition of liberty, let us turn our minds inwardly, like a mirror, so that we may reflect upon the creative capacities that lie within us, through which we inwardly construct our images of the world. Let us acknowledge the complementary nature of our minds: that we can subjectively comprehend and act upon the universe without, at the same time, having our understanding precisely correlate with the world in which we live. Let us have the humility to recognize that we are generally able to function well in a complicated universe in spite of never having complete and certain knowledge. Let us recognize that one who believes in a flat-earth, geocentric world can still farm a good field of wheat, and that a man who rejects your moral philosophy may still be a good neighbor.

We have been trained to look for godliness, virtue, direction, and truth outside ourselves, in some agency external to ourselves. Such beliefs have been generated largely by those who have either a religion or a political system to fasten upon the necks of their fellow beings. It is through such thinking that some have been able to control the thoughts and actions of others by attacking their victims' sense of self-capacity and worthiness to function in the world.

It is time that we discovered the inner sense of what it means to be a free and responsible individual. We are destroying ourselves through processes by which we have allowed others to define both reality and propriety for us. Like dogs, we have learned to beg and roll over upon command from our masters, to slobber in anticipation of some small morsel, and to carry our leashes in our own mouths. None of this could have been accomplished without our willingness to believe that we are inwardly incapable of defining our own purposes in life or pursuing our own interests without the supervision of others. It has been our lack of confidence in the sufficiency of our inner being that permits such psychic self-flagellation. Why do we persist in living irresponsibly, by allowing others to form our judgments? Why do we fear our own minds but insist on believing the thinking of others?

What powers lie within the creative processes of our subjective minds! We have been able to discover the secrets of nature, make sophisticated tools, produce great music and other art forms, create agricultural and industrial methods of producing goods and services, generate languages and mathematical systems, and form organizations that allow us to cooperate for our mutual interests. But even more impressive has been our minds' capacities for generating moral principles and even gods.

Within the complexities of our minds are to be found the engines of creation that have made mankind both the creative genius and the destructive beast that we are. It gives me a sense of liberated exhilaration to know that, because of the processes of my subjective mind, I am the source of the knowledge, values, and decision-making effectiveness upon which I rely for my short stay on this planet. What greater expression than this of what it means to be a free individual?

For the sake of living well — in the fullest material and spiritual meaning of that phrase — we must rediscover that inner, subjective sense of wonder and exploration that we knew as small children: when we could marvel at a spider as she spun her web, without having to make judgments about her; when our response to taking a fall while reaching for something beyond our grasp was to get up again and reach a little higher; when we knew that our emotions were not reactive impulses to be suppressed, but signals — coming from within our soul — warning us of the hidden implications of our actions. Is it possible for us to relearn how to observe without being restricted by labels that suck the meaning out of our experiences? Can we learn, once again, how to trust our own minds — including our emotions — and to resist those who insist upon putting chains on our thinking?