On the Philosophy of Not-knowing

Part 1

Since the "enlightenment" of the 17th century we have this idea of building our knowledge up from a foundation of knowledge - from something certain, something true, something understood. Descartes found that piece of solid ground in his “I think therefore I am” (Cognito Ergo Sum); Kant had his (Is)land of Truth - which were the truths of science.  Before this shift to Humanism, there was a more divine-centred world where we (as humankind) had little knowledge of worth and little claim to it, and it was in the divine world where the knowledge was.

However, to us, the idea of building up our knowledge from sure empirical foundations sounds sensible, as surely anything else, like building on mere opinion or arbitrary dogma, is unappealing and leads to conflict in the case of different religions for example.

But there is a third option: why can't we build on the knowledge of our not-knowing, or rather start by developing a 'knowledge of not-knowing' and then see what can be built from there.

Traditionally, knowledge must, if it is to be a belief of some kind, be justified, true belief. We must be able to account for our claims.  If I use a calculator for a maths question I don't understand, I may gain a true belief (the correct answer) but I have not an account as to why that must be the answer. If however I can state the rules for the each step of the  calculation and show the method then I have knowledge (or a fair claim to it).

So when Socrates said that he knew that he knew nothing, obviously he is claiming that it is true that he knows nothing, but also he must be claiming some account of his not-knowing.

What can this account be? Surely, we might respond, there is only one way of not-knowing something (although we may be happy with the idea of many different ways of knowing). Is it possible for there to be different ways of not-knowing?.

Well not-knowing is of something, is it not? Just as knowing is a relation between Knower and Known, unknowing is a relation between Unknower and Unknown.  What is that something unknown?  Lets call it an hypothesis!

So what is an hypothesis?

Consider this famous image above as an analogy for the relationship between knowing (white shape) and not-knowing (black shape).  I suggested that since The Enlightenment we have been focusing on the cup (knowledge) and ignoring the background (of not-knowing) - it is all just one, undifferentiated thing this "not-knowing" when we consider it as background.

However if we shift our perspective to looking at not-knowing in itself (making it the foreground) we see it has a form of its own (the two faces).

So let's call this not-knowing "unknowing" when we are focusing on it.  How do we deal with unknowing? What account do we have of it?

Let's consider the idea that 'the hypothesis' is the way we relate to unknowing.   So what is an hypothesis?

Well we can say that statements in language can be hypotheses.  An hypothesis is a proposition held in question. We can say that an hypothesis is an idea and a belief.

So we can ask the question: are all hypotheses language propositions?

Here is is useful I think to consider the 4 ways of knowing (as expounded by John Vervaeke) and call it more generally 4 ways of believing.

These 4 ways are Propositional, Procedural, Perspectival, Participatory.

In some sense each of these is deeper, more embodied kind of belief than the last.

As in:- propositions build on procedures, that build on perspectives, and ultimately these beliefs are built on participation in environment.

So if an hypothesis is a form of belief - it is a belief that is held in question - then we can say with this model that we not only have the common propositional hypotheses but also procedural hypotheses.

For example, a procedural hypothesis might be called an experiment (we say "an experimental procedure") A successful experiment (one that gives repeated and reliable results) becomes a procedure that can reach the level of "procedural knowledge" - say successfully baking a cake or making a clay pot on a wheel.

A hypothesis can also be a (temporary) taking of a certain perspective. For example, in the cup/faces image our perspectival hypothesis might be that we should take the white as the foreground, and thus we perceive a cup.

And Participatory hypothesis might be something like an existence question - does X exist? does X participate in existence?...

What we see above I hope is that the world of unknowing and hypotheses is far richer than we might imagine and is mostly unconscious, as Procedural, Perspectival, Participatory are mostly unconscious belief systems.

Maybe this new perspective on not-knowing - unknowing - might in fact be a frame that stands beside the enlightenment picture, a picture worn away to almost nothing. Because, just as in our cup/faces analogy no amount of hard looking at the cup will allow you you see the faces, so we might need to set 'knowledge' to one side and see what we have missed! The scientific way with dealing with hypotheses is not likely the only way!

We need to ask what different ways are there to deal with hypotheses (in the deepest sense), and do different people have different habits or preferences in this regard?

Above, I have suggested that if we shift our perspective away from what we know (or think we know) we can explore the world of unknowing.  How do we deal with this world? - it is practically infinite and “combinatorically explosive” (see John Vervaeke) - "the world " is not just the world of the senses but also the internal world of 'the mind' (to use an old fashioned term :slight_smile: )- taken together, internal and external, we have the world as “the phenomenological field of experience”.

The data “given” must be structured by ourselves (mostly unconsciously) in order to make sense of it.  AI research has shown this:- you can't just plug a video camera into an AI and expect it to see the world - there is too much going on and too many different coherent ways to structure that data into objects (and their relations) at any given point in space and time.

The task is impossible if we expect it to emerge bottom-up (in the way AlphaGo learnt to play Go from the bottom-up purely from data of experience playing itself - the difference is these games (also Chess) are so tightly bounded, unlike the massively multidimensional experience of the World).

The way we deal with the world (the unknown) is by hypotheses.  We saw before that hypotheses were not just propositions at the level of language but far deeper. For example in the pitch dark our brains may make out a shape to be, say, a person lurking in the shadows - that hypothesis is created at a unconscious level in the brain and potentially brought forward in your conscious awareness for consideration - only on reflection and after that fact might there be an verbal proposition:- "there was nothing there - just shadows"

There are potentially a bewildering array of different hypotheses that we can consider, so just like in a mathematical proof where we often try to reduce the problem to a simpler one  (for example the way you decompose a complex shape into triangles to prove Euler’s formula in 2D (V-E+F =1) (https://plus.maths.org/content/eulers-polyhedron-formula )  which you then use to prove the 3D formula V-E+F=2) – let's similarly try and simplify and structure the world of hypotheses.

So let’s consider a proposition (a hypothesis) "A is a B".  Now this actually should be decomposed (following Bertrand Russell https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/On_Denoting) as A exists and B exists, and A is a B.  “A is a B” is claiming more than just A is a B, but also more basically that they exist in some sense.

So let’s just deal with existence hypotheses of the form "A exists" because all other hypotheses rest on these.

Next I am going to look at 3 different ways the hypothesis “A exists” can be considered.  In brief these three ways  (each way a pair of opposites in a way) are a, b and c below:-  (going to go into more detail on each dimension soon hopefully)

a - we can consider consequences of A existing, or we can consider consequences of A not existing.  Do we hold a belief true until proven otherwise, or do we reject it (the null hypothesis of science) unless it is incoherent/impossible to do so?

b – we can consider two different meanings of "exists" - e.g. a circle exists as a pure maths object, and as an object we can construct and perceive.

c. do we consider consequences (of the hypothesis regarding A) for itself, A, or consequences for Others (not-A)?   e.g if God exists what must God be like, or if God exists what does that mean for me/the world.

And beyond that there are more mysteries: Are there any other ways to consider hypotheses?