Thursday, April 10, 2008

The Real World, Knowledge, and the Internet

This may seem like I am coming somewhere out of left field for those that have read my blog. It is something that does relate to the internet, this blog, every other blog out there, vlogs, and the real world. A few weeks ago I was reading a news item (no longer online) that was talking about most young people not knowing much about classical historical knowledge (ex. Who wrote the Iliad?) versus the latest in pop culture (ex. What has Britney Spears been up to?). This type of news article is not that unique. Every few months studies will come out or someone will come out with a news article with how less educated young people are. The idea is that the intelligence of the population is now degrading. If you want to see a real toilet humor example of this idea then see the movie Idiocracy by Mike Judge. Although really trashy, there is some thought in this movie of the logic of intelligence.

What these articles seem to be pointing at is that the information explosion has made knowledge of the real world very unbalanced. Let’s face it, trying to stimulate interest in learning about the United States Constitution (or, some treatise by John Locke) is much harder than giving someone a magazine about his or her favorite band. Most young people are going to want to know about what interests them, and not what seems so far away historically or abstract.

I have no doubt that many young people are exposed to some of these subjects, but their ability to remember maybe a problem. Some has to do with not having interest in the subject. The other is we do not live in a society like some of the ancients where oral tradition was passed down and central to a societies survival. These days we go to an encyclopedia or just do google searches.

One issue that is assumed in these types of articles is that our knowledge is fixed. When it is all said and done I would agree with this. However, I think people tend to underestimate how much of what was taught 30-80 years ago has been seriously questioned. We don’t live in the same world where the idea is to cram a bunch of facts into a person and that makes them educated. I see and hear this sometimes from others when someone talks about a textbook that is being used to teach a young person. The complaint will be that there are many errors of fact in the book. There maybe errors of fact, but there is a lot more that goes into this than just having the right answer.

When it comes to all of this I like to backtrack a bit. Ever since Plato’s Theaetetus, knowledge has been defined as having a justified true belief. I am going to throw out something called the “Gettier Problem” with this definition and just say that Plato’s three part definition is necessary for knowledge.

In plain English, the idea is that to know something you have to have the correct answer, but you also have to have a good reason for that answer. Sometimes you will hear someone saying that you need to know what you believe and why you believe it. Otherwise, all someone is doing is memorizing trivia. A lot of game shows are like this where all you need is the correct answer to win.

It turns out that in the world we live in that having good reasons is more important than the answer or conclusion. Sometimes a young person will tell me the answer to a math problem and I might be unimpressed. I then want to know why they came to that answer. If they get the answer and the reason for that answer I am satisfied. The real debates in areas in any field of knowledge is usually not the answers, but the evidence and reasons for those answers. This is where you start getting into proper valid logic, evidence, good reasons, the scale of rationality (ex. counterbalanced, probable, beyond reasonable doubt, evident, certain).

Why am I bringing this up? With the information explosion we are constantly being hammered with a lot of information each day. Watching some of the cable networks you get the main story being talked about, but then you get little captions keeping you up to date with everything else. Then with the internet you have websites, chat rooms, messages boards, blogs, vlogs, etc. that have different types of information. I like to keep informed, but even I have had a hard time keeping up with everything out there. I just feel worn down if I try to watch, read, and listen to everything out there. I do not mean to be insulting, but there is a lot of junk out there. Whenever I go to my local Border’s bookstore I am amazed at all the new books and magazines that are filled with stuff that just does not matter that much. The key is we have to find what is really worthwhile and relevant in life and make that the priority. I am going to come back to this soon, but I wanted to raise a few issues about this because of the billion blogs out there I am sure everyone wants to make his or her own blog something of importance.