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04 Aug Context of Knowing, Thinking and Believing

Japanese Woman in KimonoThere may be an incontrovertible thing out there called “truth.” But it seems quite elusive to me. In Japanese it is very polite to append just about any declarative sentence, any assertion of knowledge with “to omoimasu” (と思います) meaning I think. By being less committal, we save the other people in the conversation from embarrassment because their knowledge is different or contradictory. But this raises an interesting question: Is the human brain capable of knowing anything? Some scientists describe the brain as if it is a machine. Can a machine, even a biological machine, know anything? I’d like to explore the implications of context in knowing, thinking and believing, and show why any knowledge representation scheme should follow the Japanese model of being polite in its assertions.

Perception and Knowing

Organisms with brains not capable of complex reasoning learn mostly by associating perceptions with outcomes. For some, the sense of smell is a powerful source of knowledge needed to survive by avoiding the sources of scary smells, and going after the sources of smells associated with good food. Humans base many of our interpretations of the world and of specific events on perception. This is natural, but it may not be optimal. The old axiom that ten witnesses of the same event will tell ten different stories suggests that perception is not the best source of knowledge. Or it may suggest that the human brain is not the best repository of knowledge. I think the human brain is almost always a perfectly satisfactory knowledge repository, but the subjectivity of each person’s viewpoint, and their historical contexts, naturally lead to different shades of interpretation.

Understanding Context Cross-Reference
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Section 5 #29

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Table of Context

Soren KirkegaardRené Descartes, Immanuel Kant and Søren Aabye Kierkegaard wrote about the vagaries of subjectivism. Kierkegaard once said: “People understand me so poorly that they don’t even understand my complaint about them not understanding me.”  Descartes’ methodological skepticism encourages us not to trust anything we learn. David Hume went so far as to say that nothing exists, only the properties of things. The good news is that, in the face of ambiguity and different perspectives, as humans gather additional information, the knowledge they collectively and individually hold tends to merge into shared understanding. Does that shared knowledge, then, rise to the level of truth? If there is a correct shared knowledge in a community of humans with subjective brains, is it possible for any one of the individuals to hold the whole truth and nothing but the truth? I don’t have answers to these questions, but I do have computational models that permit us to assume that we can approximate human competency in knowing things, and, in the sense of this blog, in understanding things.

Language and Knowing

witness in courtAre the ten witnesses understanding the same event, based on their perceptions, in ten different ways, or are they, based on their style of communication, simply expressing it in ten different ways. I suspect we can assume some of both. In addition to the natural variations due to viewpoint and the application of historical bias, each one of us speaks a slightly different language. Education, literature and mass media all serve to standardize us, mitigating individual differences in communication styles, but, like snowflakes, our individuality creates opportunities for imperfect communication. Yet we, by twos and as communities, are extremely capable of crystallizing perceptions, thoughts and words into mutual understanding. How do we do that?

I think it is because we are generally optimistic believers. We are willing to suspend disbelief and grant other people the benefit of their individual viewpoint in exchange for the same courtesy toward ourselves. Mind you, these are very complex maneuvers. When Jesus said, “Judge not that ye be not judged” He was not giving a simple instruction. The human mind has built-in mechanisms for judgement that work full time. We judge the height of a stair-step and the distance of an obstacle so we can judge exactly how much we will need to lift our leg or adjust our gait to get where we’re going efficiently and safely. We make social judgments constantly that place us in social circles that enable us to succeed in cooperative behavior. Christ’s charge goes on to say: “Judge not unrighteously; But judge righteous judgement.  For with that judgement ye judge, ye shall be judged; and with that measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again.” (Holy Bible: New Testament: Matthew 7:2-3). I think this is an optimistic pattern of belief.

Jesus and LambAs optimistic believers in one another’s ability and intent to communicate truly, we think and communicate constantly under premises of cooperative indulgence. We make allowances for small differences, and we even perform very rapid, possibly sub-conscious translations between what we heard, and the way we would have seen or expressed the same reality. We can even choose to treat things expressed as fact as if they were metaphor or allegory (remember Descartes again). Is it possible that pessimism, incredulity, or even negative self-image can interfere with successful communication (understanding). I think it is possible. I think there are many emotional components of successful communication and cooperative behavior, and the Japanese conventions of politeness, and the Lord’s instructions are valuable in every aspect of life and communication.

Is it possible, then, to design polite systems that judge righteous judgement? Or can we achieve the same results by designing systems to be deferential or unassuming? This may be necessary but probably will not be sufficient. The systems that apply confidence values to every fragment of knowledge they use and deliver can, and should be designed to be unassuming in their interaction patterns as well と思います. But to be sufficient, we humans will need to interact with systems differently, possibly treating them more like our fallible friends, than like our sworn enemies in some users’ cases, or like infallible sources of truth for others. We will need a dose of skepticism (thank you David Hume) along with optimistic belief in the generations of computers in the age of knowledge.

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