An Introduction To Provisional Knowledge

October 15, 2016 — by Casey Allen0


At the time of writing, the United States is less than a month away from electing a new president. It doesn’t take much knowledge of politics to see that this election is extremely contentious – both in terms of of the candidates and the rhetoric surrounding their campaigns. Without commenting too much on the actual politics, I would like to use this time in our country’s history to illustrate a need for developing a sense of provisional knowledge.

Strong opinions are ubiquitous in our society and definitely in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. These opinions are often presented to us as facts. Facts which are meant to either affirm our own opinions or change our beliefs to align with the presenter. Here is an example from the Presidential Campaign: In August, Donald Trump tweeted the followingscreen-shot-2016-10-15-at-12-17-05 “Inner-city crime is reaching record levels. African-Americans will vote for Trump because they know I will stop the slaughter going on!”  It’s a catchy tweet, and Trump has used similar statements about crime as a part of his platform in the race. The danger here, however, is that what Mr. Trump said was undeniably false. Most categories of crime have been on a steady decline since the early 1990’s. However, if the viewer of that tweet didn’t follow up on this statement, they may accept it as fact and therefore have the belief that inner-city crime is reaching record levels.

Moving away from politics and towards the field of ethics (I’m using this term broadly to describe the concept of right and wrong conduct), I am going to assume that as conscientious humans, our goal is to have accurate beliefs. That is, we want our beliefs to reflect facts about the world around us so that our own personal reality is an accurate one. This is useful to us because our opinions are tied to our morals and our concepts of ethical behavior.

What I would like to suggest is that the best way to have accurate beliefs (upon which you can form your own opinions, morals, values, etc) is through provisional knowledge. I believe that the scientific method provides an excellent picture of this principle. bartolomeu_velho_1568For example, during much of history the accepted astronomical model was geocentric (with the Earth at the center of the universe and the other planets and stars moving around it). It wasn’t until the 16th century that a German astronomer named Nicolaus Copernicus presented a mathematical heliocentric model (where the Sun is at the center of our solar system, with the other planets orbiting around it). Shortly afterwards, this heliocentric model was confirmed through observation and further refined by other scientists. Today it would seem silly to use any other model for our solar system. And this is the power of provisional knowledge (and science itself) – it does not purport that it’s beliefs are the ultimate and accurate picture of reality to be followed until the end of time. It instead asserts that it’s knowledge is the best we have at this time. Given new, more accurate information, it will always change and adapt. In this way it is truly a method, and not dogmatic belief.

I believe this is how we should treat our own opinions and beliefs. The strength of our opinions should be in direct proportion to our confidence in the knowledge of the subjects to which they relate. It’s okay to not have a strong opinion on something you are not well informed on. It’s okay to say “I don’t know”. It’s okay to admit that your opinion is provisional – that you have formed it from the information you have been given. And it’s definitely okay (and I would say it is a moral responsibility) to change either the strength or the nature of your opinion when new information is presented to you.

Especially in times like this one surrounding our presidential election, I believe that advocating for provisional knowledge is important. The election and accompanying media-hype tend to advocate for the opposite. It’s therefore incumbent upon us to be people of reason and measure who avoid polarization and dogmatism. There is obviously a lot to say on this subject. It’s one that I am passionate about and that I will likely write more about in the future. For now though, I would like to leave you with this one point to consider – It is often difficult for us to examine our own beliefs. It’s at the heart of introspection and it makes us feel vulnerable. But I will assert that if our goal is to be the best, most moral people we can be, then we must do just this. We must consider our knowledge and beliefs to be provisional and be open to changing them when new, more accurate information is presented to us.