Harry Lewis [blog], one of my faves and someone who does not put up with any of my guff, had me in as a guest lecturer in one of his courses today. We talked about knowledge on the Net, and, in particular, whether the Net is leading us to flock with others who are like us, thus making us stupider and more extreme, rather than smarter and more open. It’s hard to know what the data actually are about this; Harry, who worries that the Net is just enabling us to confirm our ignorances, nevertheless pointed us to the David Brooks column that references some more optimistic studies. But, as I think Harry agrees, this is an area where the meaning of such studies is up for grabs â€” ironically, if we cite the studies that confirm our beliefs (which, btw, is the opposite of what Harry was doing), and ironically with a double salchow in light of what I’m about to say about facts.
This discussion was quite useful for me. I’m writing the last section of the chapter on facts. The echo chamber argument (i.e., we flock with similar birds and chirp our way into stupidity) often expresses a nostalgia for the Enlightenment, which includes, in the modern era, a belief that knowledge rests on a bedrock of facts. Facts are bedrock because they cannot be disputed. Facts, after all, straddle the line between the world and our knowledge of the world: They are what are knowable about the world. They are what makes a true statement true. They are not dependent on our knowledge (they are true whether or not we know them), but they enable our knowledge. Because facts are facts regardless of whether any one of us recognizes them, they are true for everyone. Thus: Bedrock because they are independent of us, and bedrock because they are nonetheless knowable.
So, this makes a big stinking problem for the book, for a few reasons.
First, I don’t want to be dealing with this question. It’s too hard. This was supposed to be a relatively easy book about expertise and knowledge, and now I’m smack up against big questions that are way way past my pay grade.
Second, I think the metaphysics in which the “facts are bedrock” argument is embedded is a misguided metaphysics. I fully believe that facts do not depend on us, and that facts are just one (particularly useful) “mode of discourse” â€” one way the world shows itself to us if we ask about it in a particular way. The Enlightenment set-up of the problem doesn’t let us have our fact-based cake and eat it too, which is what’s required. But I don’t want to deal with metaphysics (see point #1 immediately above)). So, I’m thinking about talking in the book about “networked facts” that include their links and context, for facts are always (?) taken up in context, and once taken up by us, they no longer serve as a self-sufficient bedrock, because you take them up one way and I take them up the other. Facts in a networked world always (= almost always, often, can) point back into the source from which they emerge and ahead into the social stew that makes sense (= tries to make sense, pretends to make sense, makes no sense) of them. (I do want to make sure that the reader doesn’t feel let off the hook when it comes to facts; facts matter.)
Third, I realized after the class that I’m right back in the topic of my doctoral dissertation of 30+ years ago, which was about Heidegger’s ontology of things (= material objects, roughly). My question then was how do we make sense of phenomena that show themselves in our experience as being beyond our experience. Apparently, I still don’t know.