Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Education and Reality

Imagine you're alive in medieval Europe. For centuries the Church has had a free hand in determining dogma in schools. It has taught that the Earth is the center of the universe because God values it and us so much. We are the most important part of creation, so of course we're the center. Imagine that there's this new theory bouncing around, championed by some Italian scientist that actually, the Sun is the center of the solar system, and you can see from various measures and tests that this is true. Do you not wish that you could at least get your side aired? At least give the solar-centric view a fair chance and let people decide for themselves?

Transport yourself to the present, and make a leap of imagination: let's pretend you believe in creationism. Or in Lost Cause theory of the Civil War, or something similarly thought you be false by the general academic establishment. You see around you a system devoted to teaching impressionable children a falsehood. In the case of the creationists, the system is teaching children a blasphemous falsehood; one that brings them farther away from the truth and from God. In the case of the Lost Causers, the system is teaching children to hate their heritage and the culture that you admire. Either way, the stakes are high. What do you do? Judging from current events and history, you get on the school board or textbook selection committees and campaign to get the truth into the schools. You look for textbooks or teachers or lesson plans that at the very least include your side with the mainstream stuff so that the kids can have a chance of forming their own opinions.

Certainly, if you assume that you believe in creationism, it's not hard to sympathize with someone trying to get it taught in schools. But we (I'm assuming a (American) liberal audience here, since that's my background and my inclination) feel very frustrated with those who try to push falsehoods or beliefs as possible facts in our school system. Why can't they just teach their kids what they like on their own time? Why do they have to spread their views to everyone else? My question is, why don't we ever ask that question of ourselves? Instead of thinking there's something wrong with the other side, maybe we should be asking if there's something wrong with a standardized, compulsory and public school system which forces us to decide on one thing as a culture to teach our children.

Now, you might say that this is not a fair comparison. Galileo presented facts that anyone else could check. Even today, you can perform the same experiments as he did and get to the same conclusions. These beliefs that Galileo and those other champions of scientific truth put forward are facts, we say. We know these things. But do we? In Philosophy, there's a field called epistemology, which is essentially the study of what we can know. It's certainly not a settled field, and there are lots of different opinions about what we can know and what we can't, but ask yourself for a moment what causes you to believe the things you think you know.

Let's take a simple scientific fact as an example, like the law of gravity. It's often pointed to as a good bulwark for steady and uncontroversial scientific knowledge: it's easy to observe and test. We can pick something up and notice that it seems to resist going up. Indeed, when we let it go, it drops down pretty fast to the ground. Newton's Law of Gravity is beautiful in its simplicity and its clearness. It's something that describes nature in a way you'd be crazy to argue against, because everyone can experience it in the same way.

But how do we actually know that we can trust our experiences? For instance, what if what we were seeing was a mass hallucination? What if we all, for the totality of our lives, were perceiving a reality that wasn't true? This isn't as crazy an idea as it might seem. Many philosophers have considered it, from Descartes to Berkley. The implications are rather complicated and I'm fairly certain I'm going to butcher them, but consider it this way: let's say you're sitting in a room. In the corner, there's a computer. That computer has that little widget in the corner which tells you you're connected by wi-fi to the outside world. You have a webcam feed coming in and you can watch the video. You can touch the controls and see the video change, as if the camera is moving. You can touch those controls and have the image change such that it appears like the camera is turning around, to point at a box with all sorts of wires heading towards it. It doesn't have windows or doors. You look around your room and see no windows or doors, but can see power cables running from your computer towards a socket in the wall. You open your instant messenger and some nickname called Outside sends you a message saying "Hello, in there!" You can respond back and forth with this nickname in a way that is meaningful to you.

Now, you may say that you'd certainly have reason to believe there's an outside world, living in that box. You can even see the box you're in with the webcam! You can argue that so long as it appears like there's an outside world (and it certainly would appear that way), there's no reason not to live like there's a world outside your room. I wouldn't argue with you. But you'd have to concede that you can't know there's anything out there. Everything you interact with is right there, inside your room. You don't even perceive any outside world except by the tools in your room. You only believe you can see the box you're in because you see the image of a box you believe would be similar to yours on your screen. But that image is inside the box. Everything you can see, feel, touch, smell or taste is inside the box. You can only believe there's an outside world by trusting that your computer is telling you something true about the outside world, and that trust comes from no conclusive evidence.

You could argue that our lives are the same way; we are a consciousness fed sensations by our perceptions, and we interpret those sensations as meaningful signals from the outside. We feel pressure on our fingers and believe we're touching something. In fact, that sensation is a perception, possibly caused by an act of touching something but we can't know that. If we know everything through the tools inside the box, and can't get outside of it to verify them, we can't know there's a world out there.

What does this mean? It probably doesn't mean anything, in terms of how you live your life. I certainly intend to live my life as though there's an external world, even though I can't know there is. But it's important to recognize what that choice means. It means I have to abandon the notion that I know that what I believe to be true is true. Certainly, I have a lot of perceived reasons to believe that gravity operates in a way very similar to our current understanding of it. I feel pressure when I pick something up, I see images of something falling when I release that pressure feeling. I can put those feelings together into an impression that I just dropped something. But I don't know it. In the end, it comes down to an unwarranted trust in the basic nature of my sensations. That which we call scientific fact is merely something that we all choose to agree to believe in: the reality of our sensations.

Again, what does this mean? It means that we don't have the privilege of knowing facts about our world. There's mainstream beliefs, and non-mainstream beliefs. There may be near-universal beliefs (there aren't many people who believe there is no physical world), but they are still beliefs. We can't say for certain that they are correct, because we don't have access to the truth; we can just go by what our perceptions tell us about the world. Things get even more complicated when you're talking about things which people cannot perceive, like what the proper narrative should be with regards to a history. That's even less fact-like than the scientific facts that we aren't even allowed to be certain of. If I can't know that what I believe to be right really is a fact that everyone should believe, then why should I insist that schools should teach my facts to other people's kids?

In reality (hah), I think we all have our bones to pick with the school system. There's something each of us thinks the schools teach wrongly to our kids, and we try to counteract those lessons at home. Maybe we believe that schools over-emphasize FDR's role in ending the Great Depression, maybe we feel they under-emphasize the role of slavery in the cause of the Civil War, maybe we feel like schools stress too much the notion that thinking inside the box is the way to get ahead in life. Instead of just griping about it and spending valuable time counteracting bad lessons at home, why don't we demand less uniformity from our system? Why must we all learn the same lessons? Is it because it grates against us when kids somewhere are taught facts we know to be wrong? Are we really entitled to feel like we know what we think we know in the first place?

It may be the case that our school system does more good than harm, and that changing it would end up being worse than leaving it the way it is; I'm open to that thought. But I think it's important to know, in the fight over facts, that it's hard to insist on your particular facts in the face of the humility we all should be having over the nature of truth. The outside world is hard for us to see, if we can indeed see it at all. Maybe that should give us all pause when we think about trying to get our schools to reflect our beliefs, whether they be religious, economic, political, historical or even scientific.

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