14 May 2006

The Circle: A Theory of Knowledge

When I was in the IB program in high school, we were required to take a very interesting class called "Theory of Knowledge." The actual content of the course included basically life, the universe, and everything. More specifically, we talked a lot about how people know things, what truth is, valid methods of persuasion, etc. It was basically a crash course in philosophy, writing, and debate, only a lot cooler because Mr. Campbell taught it. (He has subwoofers under his desks and reads The Simarillion once a year. Yeah, he's cool.)

While I was taking this class, my dad and I came up with our own theory of knowledge. I call it the Circle of Knowledge (third cousin, twice removed, of the Circle of Life . . . not). This idea originated in a discussion of political topics, since that's my dad's main area of knowledge, but ever since I have noted that it seems to apply to almost everything I see it life. Gospel topics, literary criticism, history, you name it, it relates. We noted that for most divisive political issues, there appear to three types of people involved in debate, each with a different level of knowledge and relative stance on the issue. From our observations, we formed the following idea, which I have roughly sketched out below. (I apologize for the bad graphics. I don't have any cool photoshop programs.)

The Groups

  • Group 1 is the uniformed and apathetic, who are involved in the debate only in a figurative sense. They either don't care about the issue at hand or lack the information to form any strong opinion on the subject. Their main purpose is to serve as blind followers to be manipulated by group 2, or subjects to be educated by group 3. Thus, Group 1 is henceforth known as "the Sheep." All people in this group are just about the same with reference to the issue. One sheep is as good as another. Also, problem solving is easy with this group: it simply doesn't matter to them what you do, or if you do anything at all.
  • Group 2 consists of the moderately informed, at least on a social level. They know at least the general banter about the subject: slogans, catchphrases, buzzwords, the latest talk on CNN or Fox. As people begin to gather information, some of the people will form opinions which seem in total opposition to the opinions formed by others on the same information. In the case of a basic knowledge circle, there are two opinions, for ease of two-dimensional drawing, but with a little imagination, you can create a "circle" with 3, 4, or up to an infinite number of such opinions. (I guess you could even do a circle with one opinion, but I'm not sure of its relevance.) Group 2, or the "Party-Line," become convinced that their opinion is the only rational one, and refuse to hear anything to the contrary. You will find these people at all the national party conventions, as well as your local school board, and probably every college issue paper. Obviously, with these people it is impossible to get anything done because they cannot come to a concensus of action. They mostly just sit around yelling about how the other Party-Line is stupid and obviously can't tell black from white.
  • Group 3, of course, is the group you want to be in, but it also happens to be the smallest group. These are the people who push past the categorizing mindset of the Party-Line, and try to actually understand how rational people could come up with these two different views. Then, they add the missing ingredient in this problem: original thought (imagine that!). As they come to understand the other opinions available, the "Solvers" in group three reach the truth about an issue, not by valididating the opinion of any of the Party-Lines, but taking true principles from each and forging it into a new and brighter whole. They gain real understanding and knowledge, and when left to their own devices, can solve problems very effectively.

Of course, there are also any number of intermediaries between these groups. We progress in our knowledge around the circle as we study an issue, hopefully one day reaching the common ground at the top. Another idea which I have failed to include in my diagram is that of passion or ownership of an issue. The scale of passion about an issue runs about the same as the knowledge scale: the Sheep are apathetic, the Party-Line is interested, and the Solvers truly take the issue to be their own. This ownership, or maybe testimony, of an idea comes from the deep thought put in by someone in the Problem Solvers group, which forces them to really understand the significance of an issue. It is when we reach the top of the circle that we can really write something about an idea. Sheep simply don't know enough, and the Party-Line repeat old ideas with little new synthesis.

One of the main things I like about this system is that the difficulty of communication between groups can be illustrated by the distance between the groups on the circle. The two Party-Lines have as much difficulty talking to each other as the Solvers have trying to convince the apathetic Sheep. However, once you have reached the knowledge of the Party-Line, it becomes easier to make the jump into full Solver. Luckily, I believe we can train our ability to move up this circle at greater speed. As we train our mind to think more critically and to be in tune with the truth, we can rapidly ascend to the top, spending as little time as possible as the Party-Line.

Thoughts and comments are welcome. This idea is still much in development, so hit it with your best shot. As a brain starter, here's a few of the issues I have looked at using this pattern, most of which I am working towards a level 3 answer to:
  • Faith/Works

  • Pro-Choice/Pro-Life

  • Soulforce

  • Capitalism/Socialism

  • Post-Modernism/Critical Realism

Questions I am still working on:
  • What would a one-dimensional knowledge circle mean?
  • How could divine revelation/pathos/ethos/other methods of knowing complicate this picture?
  • Is it ever possible to skip from a Group 1 to Group 3?
  • What about backwards reversions?
  • Multiple, intertwined circles? (eg. Your level 3 is really a level 2 or 1 on a higher circle.) Can we ever reach a "last circle"?
Sweet! I feel like Yeats! :DPosted by Picasa


bawb said...

Huh. Interesting idea. I'd probably agree with it. (And I thought your graphic was impressive.)

Honestly, though, have you met anyone who claims that it's only about work and the faith-based people have no idea what they're talking about? In a lot of cases, I think entire schools of thought think of themselves as the solvers, with the question being not who's right, but exactly where the balance lies. Would this circle be partially one-dimensional, with the amount of thought one gives to the balance determining height?

Not Too Pensive said...

Interesting idea, but please forgive a few critiques:

Your group 3 appears to be extremely relitavistic - sometimes, a dogmatic, "party-line" approach is correct. Sometimes an absolute approach is correct, sometimes there is no "understanding" with the other side. I will gladly grant the point that this is hardly the case most of the time and that far too often we jump to each other's throats. Sometimes, though rarely, there is only one rational opinion.

"The Sheep" - Perhaps you give them too much credit for simple obedience. Given the volatility of many in this group, I believe "goats" would be a better term for at least some of them. This is a group that is quickly and easily roiled up in a controversy, drug from side to side, uneducated, and whose concerns are generally framed by the media and other opinion leaders, often long enough to get them to vote. Their alliances are not steady, they follow the cause of the moment, the shinier the better. It's illegal immigration one moment, then NSA surveillance programs the next - they are generally distrustful of government, but don't really know why. Or such has been my experience. In any case, I think room for "goats" should be included. A personal opinion, of course ;-)

Your view of group 3 seems a bit romantic. You cast it as a sort of Cartesian group who will be able to find the best solution simply by reasoning about it. I'm not entirely convinced one can become a true "group 3", as bias affects essentially every human decision and condition. Also, you point to an essential problem - two perfectly rational human beings can reach entirely different solutions to problems depending upon how they approach. As the saying goes, there is more than one way to skin a cat, and with the dynamics of government - funding decisions, positions of power, etc. - disputes are bound to break out between the two schools of "group 3" thought, leading perhaps to a slide towards group 2.

Don't take my criticism too harshly, though. I do appreciate what you're trying to do here, and perhaps I've clearly stated a few things you implied and I simply didn't see. All in all, I like it, though.

Liz Muir said...

not too pensive - I welcome and thank you for your critiques. Very good points all. Two of them are definitely things I meant to imply which I thank you for bringing out, and the other one, though flawed, has some valid issues.

Your second point, about sheep being easy to sway, is true. They don't have any firm stance on the issues and as a result are easily sloshed around from one side of the debate to the other. Tossed about with every wind of doctrine, so to speak. By their obedience, I mean they have little compacity for original thought and therefore quickly can adopt the opinions of anyone who gives them a little bit of knowledge. In terms of geometry, the bottom of the circle (and the top) are where you will get the most horizontal output for the least vertical imput. And thus, the least amount of knowledge can generate the largest swing of opinion with this group. And their knowledge is easily lost, reverting them back to ignorance without outside influence.

I accept at least part of your third point wholeheartedly. It seems at the very least extremely difficult, if not impossible, for any mortal person to come to a level 3 knowledge of any topic. However, very difficult goals are often the ones worth striving for. Additionally, I believe one of the missing factors between group 2 and group 3 is the Spirit, and with the aid of the Spirit, we can at least learn to work around most of our biases to some understanding. Also, the goal is more achievable if you look at the circle not as a general scale of knowledge, but on an issue by issue basis. As Alma might say, when you reach level 3, your knowledge is perfect in that thing. However, this by no means says much about your knowledge or bias in other areas. Achieving level 3 in all areas of life would be a task for a perfect person (or, I believe, Christ), but to find one or two circles which we can reach the top of is certainly doable. And even if we can only reach half-way out of out Party-Line shells, we are that much better off.

Your first point and the end of your last point, however, raise some issues for me. I disagree that sometimes the party-line is correct. The reason that I believe different people come to different conclusions from the same evidence is not because there's more than one way to skin a cat. On the contrary, I take your claim further and say there is only one truely best option in all cases, not just some. However, with our incomplete knowledge, we value different things and base our conclusions on those (eg. pro-life values the baby, pro-choice values the mother). When we gain a perfection of knowledge, we learn how to properly balance these values, finding the truth in each of them. I can think of no actual example of a debate where we cannot learn something from the other side, not necessarily from the other side's people, who can be just as adamantly Party-Line unreachable as us, but from a truly open view of the ideas behind it.

Of course, you could always cite terrorists or Nazis as an extreme option--most people would agree we can hardly reason with them. However, there's also not a lot of knowledge there, so they don't really seem to fit on the knowledge circle. You also cite government funding. I would say this is hardly a case of group 3 thinking. Close enough to form a compromise, unlike group 2 thinking, but not a solution that usually satisfies all, as a group 3 would.

Keep your insights coming! I always enjoy your thoughts. :D Post something new on your blog already. If you do, I'll work on the 2nd and 3rd parts of my Homosexuality post. Deal?

Not Too Pensive said...

Yeah... about that whole blogging thing... sorry for the lack of postage, Arabic has nearly sucked my time dry. I have a LENGTHY blog almost finished regarding the "wall" proposal for immigration that so many have batted around, but I fear it may have been overtaken by events as of this evening. I'll get my "part 3" post up once I have a few spare hours... unlikely to happen in the near future, sadly, but I've hardly forgotten about it.

Not Too Pensive said...

A point - I would disagree that there is always a single "best" option in every single case. A best outcome? Perhaps, but a single best method of getting there is certainly debatable.

To bring a religious perspective on the issue, I'm sure we've both heard lessons where the key point is that the Lord doesn't particularly care about every single thing we do - the brand of vegetables we buy is typically cited as an example.

Much the same can be said of the political process. By its very nature, our democratic system of government leaves a large group of the people displeased with the outcome of any situation. Politics is a game of self-interest (enlightened or otherwise), and what is truly "best" for all remains elusive and can even change over time - a particular piece of infrastructure, say a road, can't always be put in the best place, but the best possible location.

Since you started out on politics, that's what I'm sticking with, but I definitely see many of your points. I stand by my position on the party-line. Extremist positions, such as those taken by Al-Qaeda - cannot be fully understood, as doing so would amount to madness. They cannot be negotiated with. They cannot be reasoned with. They quite simply must be killed. Scripture is replete with similar examples, quite sadly. Adopting a "level 3" approach isn't always best, although I will freely concede it is important one understand at least the basic MO, motivations, and structure of an enemy such as Al-Qaeda.

In spiritual matters as well, members of the church are counselled that once the Prophet has spoken, the decision has been made. Does this rule out seeking to understand the other side? Of course not. However, the line has been clearly drawn and it becomes an obligation to toe it once handed down.

I must agree with you on the need for the spirit, and on our inability to reach "level 3" in all cases.

Like I said earlier, a very interesting idea.

bawb said...

Dude, you give me *one sentence* in reply? Sheesh.

Liz Muir said...

bawb - Well, in the faith versus works debate, yes, the circle does seem to lack a totally works based position. Clearly each position awknowledges the atonement, whih puts faith as a prerequisite. I guess the real question in that debate is do you need something more than faith? Can you ever be worthy to receive the atonement? Or at least more worthy than others? You do have several opposing views: only faith is needed; predestination (seemingly no faith or works, but probably more closely allied with works); degrees of righteousness (works-based); etc.