This first article of the series of articles “The stuff that I think you should know” will attempt to explain some important concepts related to the obtaining, source and scope of information.
Empiricism is the understanding that the source of all knowledge is sensory experience, a cornerstone of the scientific method, and a practical way to look at the world. Think about how when you were born you didn’t knew a language but ended up learning one through the use of your senses, more importantly, sight and hearing, many people that are born without one or both have to find alternative ways to learn how to communicate but they will, inevitably, be utilizing a sense, like touch, to do it. Independently of if you believe or not that sensory experience is the source of all knowledge there’s at least one thing that can be agreed upon which is that whatever amount of information we might not get via sensory experience must be incredibly small in comparison with the information that we do, and also, that the less sensory experiences and the less senses one has, the less information one can obtain, and as such, sensory experience is certainly of immense importance.
Falsifiability is the property a hypothesis has of being able to be proven false, it’s an important part of empiricism and it’s typically utilized to separate the scientific from the non-scientific subjects and/or claims.
Are all alligators green? If someone only ever saw green alligators he may assume that they’re all green, including those he never saw, and he’ll be more correct the more green alligators he sees, however, if a red alligator appears, the hypothesis that “all alligators are green” is false, which means that this hypothesis is falsifiable, and, therefore, scientific. The hypothesis “An alligator species that is totally undetectable exists” is not falsifiable, and, therefore, not scientific.
You are the ultimate judge of what you believe in, but you’re hardly the creator of the information you believe in. Your own biases and personal experiences will affect many of the things you believe and it’s unlikely that even being fully aware of them will negate their effects, for this reason, enough humility to pay attention to critiques issued by others and enough common sense to question things you already know when new information appears is a must in order to avoid being wrong in the future.
Authority, experts and scientific consensus
Passing as an authority in a certain subject, say, a famous soccer player advertising a hair shampoo, is easy, actually being one, say, a dermatologist, is hard, the opinion of an expert in a certain field is more likely to be correct than that of a layperson, however, that doesn’t mean that expert advice should be taken by the layperson without questioning it to the best of its abilities as the expert is as prone to bias as everyone else and humans excel at finding the faults of others while being relatively “blind” to their own. The general consensus of the experts in a subject will generally be much better than the opinion of any one expert as the information already underwent a higher degree of scrutiny (which isn’t to say that it shouldn’t be scrutinized by the layperson if possible, it’s that the likelihood that an inconsistency will be found is even smaller than for the single expert scenario that was already reasonably small if assuming the lack of ulterior motives, like, financial exploitation, as a good example of a common ulterior motive).
Others (non-experts) are typically called laypersons as they don’t have a socially accepted recognition of their knowledge of a subject, there are, however, laypersons that possess a veritable wealth of knowledge, even bigger than that of many experts due to their genuine interest in learning about said subject for themselves and/or those immediately around them as opposed to making a career out of it. It would be impossible to address every hypothesis raised by a layperson as everyone has ideas about things they don’t know in detail and everyone is a layperson at least in some subjects, for this reason it’s normal to dismiss claims from laypersons but there are, obviously, some exceptions.
Instruments like telescopes, microscopes, the large hadron collider, a simple magnetic compass or a pocket magnifying glass are tools that allow humans to expand on their sensory apparatus in order to obtain more empirical information.
Experiments generate observations of cause and effect which may prove or disprove a hypothesis, an experiment is typically devised to test a certain hypothesis that aimed to predict the outcome of the experiment.
Statistics are useful to find correlations between sets of information. Correlations alone cannot prove a hypothesis but they can be utilized to dismiss one, because, while correlation doesn’t imply causation, causation certainly implies correlation. There are many studies that have to rely on correlation alone (typically with humans) as certain variables cannot be manipulated due to ethical concerns and/or inability to do so.
There are many types of logical arguments (more on this further on in this series of articles) and they can be utilized to test, support, destroy and generate new hypothesis utilizing previously obtained observations and statistics.
Subjective vs. Objective
Subjective is what concerns the properties of the subject, that who has unique consciousness and experiences, the observers. Objective is what concerns the properties of the object, the things observed.
As an example the phrase “There are two pots of anchovies on top of this table.” concerns the properties of objects, more distinctly the property “amount” of the object “pot of anchovies”, so, it’s objective, something that’s measurable, any observer that would say that there are in fact three pots of anchovies instead of two would create a contradiction.
The phrase “John and Anna tasted the anchovies and they find them tasty and disgusting, respectively.” concerns properties of the subjects John and Anna, more distinctly the property “taste” that objects can’t possess, that is unique to each subject and that is immeasurable, so, it’s subjective, if one thinks anchovies taste disgusting and the other thinks anchovies taste wonderfully there’s no contradiction.
The line between objective and subjective is fuzzy because many seemingly objective things like there being two anchovy pots can only be concluded through the subjective means of our perception, it is, however, practical.
It helps to think of something called “qualia” which refers to our presumably incommunicable raw feelings when trying to differentiate subjective from objective. A good example of this is when sighted people try to describe color (which is part of their qualia) to people who have been born blind to try to make them “see” that color, which fails as in order to imagine color one needs to have seen color. Between two sighted people, even though both can communicate effectively about colors most times, how does one know that the other person sees the color blue in the same way that he does? He doesn’t, it’s not possible. Same goes for tastes, sounds, temperature and so on, all of these are examples of subjective experiences.
Absolute vs. Relative
Absolute and relative are terms used in a variety of contexts all the way from morality to physics.
Relative always entails some sort of comparison, implicitly or explicitly, terms like faster, brighter or smaller are good examples of how we make use of the relative in our lives.
The absolute is typically associated with a high degree of certainty or with the ability of being judged independently of everything else.
Morality can be considered absolute, an example is the case of unchanging strict moral codes which are usually believed to have been conceived by a deity, or relative, where it is admitted that a certain act might be either morally wrong or morally right depending on the circumstances.
Measurement scales are another example of things that we use everyday that can be either relative or absolute depending on how certain our knowledge of the subject is.
The quantifiable absence of something is identified by the number 0 and yet the temperature of 0 degrees Celsius doesn’t mean the absence of heat, that’s because degrees Celsius were established in relation to physical properties of water, 0ºC is when water freezes at a certain pressure (1 atmosphere) and 100ºC is when water boils at that same pressure, the scale is, therefore, a relative scale, as it relates temperature to properties of something else, in this case, water.
The scale of degrees Kelvin has the same increments as the Celsius scale, the 0, however, is placed at the theoretical lower limit of temperature, it is said then that this scale is absolute as it relates to the properties of temperature itself, not relative to any one thing (like water) or subset of things but rather to everything.
There are many other scopes like temporal (year, century) and spatial (universal, regional, global) but those are typically unambiguous and well known by most if not all people above a very young age.
Definitions aren’t crucially important to the thinking of an individual but they’re crucial to communicate thoughts between individuals. Many people will have a different notion of what a word means than the typical dictionary definition and other people, it’s important to be sure that when debating a topic everyone is “on the same page”. As a good practice, even if you’re not planning on debating anything, define your terms to remove ambiguity and you’ll find that connections and inconsistencies between ideas will become more apparent.