Sunday, January 10, 2016

Reliable knowledge

"They served as a passage between Montaigne's world, a world of belief and misplaced conviction, and our world, the world of reliable and effective knowledge." -- David Wootton, The Invention of Science, p. 565

This is an astounding contention: before science, human beings had no "reliable knowledge"! Our ancestors weren't sure whether planting seeds or stones would grow wheat. When they went to hunt deer, they didn't know if they should put arrowheads or fur on the end of their arrows. If they were thirsty, they were uncertain if they should ingest water or sand. When freezing, sometimes they put on furs, but other times they laid down naked in the snow: who knew which would work?

In our world of "reliable knowledge," how is it that a man as smart as Wootton can believe such rubbish?

He does provide examples of extremely fanciful beliefs our forebears held, for example, that garlic negates the power of magnets. But, as Wootton himself notes, before the compass, magnets were rarely encountered and of no practical import. To place this in perspective, for people before 1400 or so, magnets were like conservatives are to Park Slope progressives today: they have heard rumors that such things exist, but they never have and never expect to encounter them. Thus, if you go to a wine party in Park Slope and inform the guests that conservatives teach their children to shoot by age four, so that they can pick off women entering abortion clinics, your audience will nod in appreciation of your exotic knowledge.


  1. I do not say "before science, human beings had no 'reliable knowledge'" -- that's your gloss on what I do say. The quote you give from p. 565 follows on an extended discussion on pp. 558-560. e.g. "What matters for present purposes is Montaigne’s rejection not of the practical knowledge, of wine-making and bread-baking, of his day, but of the learned knowledge, of medicine, geography, astronomy. Montaigne called these various branches of knowledge ‘sciences’. Montaigne’s scepticism, when applied to the sciences of the times, was entirely justified: for there is not a single natural philosophical principle taught in the universities in 1580 that a student in the sciences would still learn today. Montaigne’s arguments against religious belief and against conventional moral certainties are still as sharp as ever they were; but his arguments against the sciences of his day have no purchase against the sciences of our day. Science is now something utterly different from what it was then." If you look at the text you will see that I offer not only wine-making and bread-making as examples, but also navigation and mathematics. In context it should have been clear that I was discussing scientific or natural philosophical knowledge, i.e. theory-based knowledge, not practical knowledge of the sort you have in mind -- and if it wasn't that's unfortunate, and now I have seen how the passage can be misread I would obviously rephrase it. In answer to your question: How can I believe such rubbish? Obviously I don't.

    1. Thanks for the comment: I will review that section and see if it changes my opinion of the later passage.

    2. "I do not say "before science, human beings had no 'reliable knowledge'" -- that's your gloss on what I do say."
      But it isn't un unreasonable interpretation: Montaigne's was a "world" consisting of belief and misplaced conviction. But again, I will review the earlier passage.


Why is it "irrational"...

to not want to work with someone who smells bad? I have the unfortunate job of telling someone whom I am mentoring that when they return ...