Lurking somewhere beneath many of the political disagreements I’ve encountered here is the question of faith versus science. In other words, how is it that we know something? This question is there when the smug philistine announces that “science is just a religion.” It is there when the idealist earnestly tells us that our belief in the class struggle is just a matter of faith. It is there when the postmodernist speaks of “historical narratives.” It is there when the devotee of macroeconomics assures us that the value of commodities is all in our heads. It is profoundly there when the supporter of identity politics wishes to replace discussion of objective conditions with discussion of personal experience.
Ironically, this question (epistemology, to call it by its name) is one that Americans grow up believing is something only suitable for academics, rather than something that is at the very heart of how we understand our world, how we interact with our world, how we seek to change our world. We are taught that questioning our method is navel-gazing. If we accept that, we are helpless before the method that we pick up from our social conditions (I trust no one will dispute that we pick up a method from growing up, being educated, and living in a particular culture at a particular time and place; if I’m wrong, I’ll go back make this post even longer).
So, how is that we actually know something? Well, obviously, not by thinking about it. I mean, you can’t prove the truth of your thought by thinking, right? That way lies solipsism. Which means either we are defeated before we begin, or must find another way.
Many, many people, of course, are defeated. They insist that we simply cannot know anything. Pragmatism, the belief that “truth is what works,” grew out of the needs of an expanding capitalist economy in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It says, “since we can’t actually know anything, let’s just find a belief system that makes us happy. Of course, yours will be different from mine, but that’s all right, because there is no truth anyway.”
Another approach is called empiricism, which emerged with the birth of science as a formal discipline and the roughly simultaneous birth of capitalism, and says that we can know facts, and facts only. In other words, we can count (more or less, and with some conditions) on our five senses to tell us certain things are true, but the connections, the reasons, the laws, are unknowable. We can know, because it was witnessed, that the sun rose in the east every day of recorded history, so we assume it will continue to do so, but we can’t know it won’t rise in the west tomorrow, because the laws of astronomy and astrophysics that guide the motion of heavenly bodies are merely ideas, which, to the empiricist, means we can’t actually know them.
So, how do we know we know?
Historically, the development of knowledge is a social, not an individual thing. What I mean by that is, yes, at some point in the past, someone came up with a way of converting motion to heat (fire). But that technique quickly became part of humanity’s body of knowledge. It was used, tested, and became the basis for further developments of knowledge, until eventually we found a way to turn heat into motion (the steam engine). Now, whether you credit the invention of the steam engine to Hero of Alexandria, or Taqi al-Din, or even skip everyone until James Watt, the point is that the steam engine became a part of humanity’s general body of knowledge, and we, human beings, used this knowledge to change the world. I’m sure I will get arguments about this or that aspect of what it means “to know,” but I trust no one is going to deny that the steam engine has changed the lives of human beings across history and cultures.
Am I off the subject? I don’t think so, and that is exactly the point. Let us return to that first mythical woman who rubbed two dry cliches together to consciously produce the first fire (probably after she or someone else had done the same thing unconsciously). She did many things, at that moment. She generated heat in a controlled way. She provided the opportunity to gain more efficient nutrition, thus permitting the brain to evolve more into a more powerful and complex organ. She developed an element of culture that could be taught to others. And, just by the way, she proved the relationship between her thoughts and the objective world. Not by her thoughts, but by her actions. In other words, as it is most often expressed, “Man answered the question of the relationship between his thoughts and objective reality hundreds of thousands of years before it occurred to him to ask.”
What I am suggesting, then, is looking at “proof” in a different way; not as something that exists as a thing inside someone’s head, but something that happens as a social process.
Proof, for human beings, is not individual, it is social. It is not passive, it is active. To focus on the question, “But how do I know this is real?” is to begin with yourself, with what’s in your head. Take it the other way. Instead of starting with your own thoughts, start with what is around you. Strive to understand the movement of history, of the natural sciences. Approach them from the point of view of, “How can we understand the world in order to change it?” Our confidence in our thoughts comes when we have put our ideas into practice and observed the result. I propose, then, not proof as contemplation, but proof as activity.