Monday, March 29, 2010

Knowledge and understanding

Allow me to quote a paragraph from philosopher Peter Hacker's review of Galen Strawson's Selves: An Essay in Revisionary Metaphysics, in the 22 January TLS (Times Literary Supplement). Hacker outlines the long, contentious and ultimately fruitless philosophical debate over the notion of "self" (to which I will return tomorrow). He then writes:
Indeed, one might innocently have thought that the problem of the self would fade away. But the same philosophical problems, like childhood diseases, emerge again in each generation. And each generation must struggle with them by itself. For while knowledge can be transmitted from one generation to another, understanding is something that has to be won afresh. And philosophy is concerned with the achievement of understanding, not with the augmentation of knowledge.
Ah yes, knowledge and understanding. The distinction is so "obvious" that it is seldom questioned. Science tells us what's what; philosophy helps us understand.

May I offer a modest dissent.

The distinction between knowledge and understanding is as phony as those other dualisms that have befuddled Western philosophy: brain/mind, matter/spirit, body/soul. What is understanding, after all, but knowledge? We now "understand" why the Sun comes up in the East. We now "understand" the source of energy of the Sun. We now "understand" the cause of diseases like the plague. We "understand" because we have wrested consensus knowledge from nature that we consider reliable. We do not yet "understand" the nature of self because we do not have sufficient knowledge of how the brain gives rise to self-awareness.

Yet.

The crucial distinction is not between knowledge and understanding, but between knowledge and ignorance.

Science slowly and patiently chips away at ignorance, so far making only modest progress on some of the thorniest subjects, such as the nature of self. In the meantime metaphysicians busy themselves constructing castles of "understanding" on foundations of ignorance. Every generation of philosophers -- from the pre-Socratics to Hacker and Strawson -- has wrestled with the same issues, such as the problem of self, and found nothing that remotely comprises consensus. Meanwhile, science has discovered enough about how the brain works to dismiss some of the worst manifestations of ignorance, such as demonic possession, and chemically alleviate some of the agonies of self, such as clinical depression.

Do we have a greater understanding of self than did our ancestors? Yes. It is called knowledge.