Précis of epistemology/The pedagogy of autonomy

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The arguments of authority[edit | edit source]

An argument of authority is that you have to believe a statement because X said it, where X is an authoritative person. An argument of authority is an admission of ignorance. We know that a statement is a knowledge when we know how to justify it, when we know why it is a knowledge. To appeal to the authority of others is to admit that we do not know how to justify it, that we are not able to recognize it as knowledge, so we do not know.

When the speech is reduced to the communication of an argument of authority - believe me because I say it, or because X said it - yes I believe you because you said it, or because X said it - there is only an ignoramus who speaks to an ignoramus. Neither the one who speaks nor the one who listens and approves, do not know what they are talking about, because to know we must rationally justify what we say. They do not share knowledge but only their ignorance.

To hold true to what we believe because we have thought it is to bow to an argument of authority, so it is always a way of ignoring.

It is necessary to distinguish the arguments of authority from the arguments of observation. To hold true to what we believe because we have observed it, and because we were well placed to observe it, is not the same as to bow to arbitrariness.

The authority of reason[edit | edit source]

When we give evidence, rational justifications of what we say, we do not appeal to the arbitrary authority of a person or a tradition, but only to the authority of reason. We do not ask to be taken for granted. On the contrary, we ask that our justifications be subjected to a critical examination. Are they good justifications? Do they really prove what they claim to prove? When we impose an argument of authority we ask for submission to those who listen or who read, we do not give them the freedom to exercise their reason. When we give them rational justifications, we ask them, on the contrary, to exercise their reason and thus assert their freedom.

Knowledge and freedom are inseparable. For knowledge to develop, the freedom to give evidence must be respected, and therefore the freedom to challenge all authority arguments. Conversely, there is no true freedom in ignorance, because in order to assert one's freedom one needs an ethical knowledge (to know what deserves to be done) and an empirical knowledge (to know how do it).

The foundationalist error[edit | edit source]

Since a knowledge must always be justified to be a knowledge, one could think of imposing a very rigorous pedagogical discipline: to ask the pupil to reject all the beliefs which she does not know how to justify, then to teach her progressively a knowledge which is always justified on the basis of previously recognized knowledge. The first knowledge, recognized at the beginning, would regroup all the forms of knowledge which justify themselves. They would thus constitute foundations from which all the rest of the knowledge could be proved by reasoning. Foundationalism consists in believing that the whole of knowledge can be proved and taught on the basis of a fundamental knowledge that is justified by itself. To constitute this fundamental knowledge, one can think of the good observations, the laws confirmed by well-controlled experiences and the principles whose truth can be admitted by definition of the terms used.

Foundationalism is an error both epistemological and pedagogical. The foundationalist ideal is not a good ideal of knowledge simply because it can not be achieved and because it is often futile to try to get close to it. We should be able to recognize from the start, even before we start learning, a knowledge that fully justifies itself and is sufficient to justify everything else. But we can not do it.

Our natural faculties sometimes allow us to recognize good observations and well-controlled experiences, but their reliability is limited to the areas that are most familiar to us, and even there they are not infallible. In general to recognize the good observations and the well-controlled experiences it is necessary to have acquired a lot of knowledge beforehand. Empirical knowledge can not progress in a linear and cumulative way by taking good observations and well-established empirical laws as foundations, because theories serve to justify and evaluate observations and experiences.

To say that principles are true by definition is not enough to fully justify them. We do not want them to be only true by definition, we want them to be good principles, to bear fruit, to give us the means to develop good knowledge. But we can not know it beforehand, before using principles to reason and to acquire knowledge. Even abstract knowledge can not progress in a linear and cumulative way by taking the principles as foundations, because the principles must be evaluated from their applications.

Recognizing, justifying and evaluating knowledge can not be learned in a day. The paths of knowledge acquisition rarely proceed from well-justified certainties to well-justified certainties. The beginner is immersed in an ocean of uncertainties, where everything is more or less hypothetical, where one grows his way, with frequent backsliding. At first we do not know how to justify much, or not very well. We acquire gradually the ability to recognize, justify and evaluate knowledge, at the same time as we acquire knowledge, by confronting examples, by studying principles, reasonings, theories, observations, and experiences. It is only at the end, when one has become really competent, that one is really able to recognize, justify and evaluate the acquired knowledge.

Becoming a teacher for oneself[edit | edit source]

The student (the learner, the beginner, the pupil, the neophyte) is in a position similar to that of the researcher, experimenter or theorist. When inventing a new instrument of observation, a new experiment, a new model or a new theory, the researcher has to prove to herself, and to others, through experience and reasoning, that it is a good instrument, that the experiment is well controlled, that the model explains the real, or that the theory makes it possible to acquire good knowledge. We do not know it in advance. At first everything is very uncertain, very hypothetical. It is only at the end, when we have good evidence, that we know that we have acquired good knowledge.

Of course, a student can not find in a few years all the evidence that human beings have spent centuries discovering. She acquires knowledge by studying the evidence given to her. She must verify that they are good proofs by making sure that she can give them to herself, that they are in accord with her natural powers of observation and reasoning. The proofs given to her must be proofs that she could give to herself.

At the same time that we learn to recognize the value of the evidence we are given, we discover that we ourselves are capable of discovering evidence, first the easiest, the shortest, the simplest, then evidence increasingly difficult. We become more and more able to answer the questions we ask ourselves and we progress in autonomy. The role of the teacher is to assist the student in her learning of autonomy, to give her the means to give proofs to herself. The student must teach herself the knowledge she acquires, the teacher must give her the means to do that.

We acquire knowledge by giving ourselves proofs, by teaching them to ourselves. And at the same time that we give ourselves proofs, we discover that we are able to know, we prove to ourselves that we are able to give ourselves proofs. Every good proof, besides proving what it says, proves to us that we are able to prove the truth, and therefore to teach it, to oneself and to others.

Appropriate the principles of science[edit | edit source]

All sciences endeavor to gather principles to explain and prove all that they give us to know. When one learns a science one must learn to use its principles. For the neophyte, they are generally very hypothetical. We learn little by little, reasoning from them, all that they can teach us, and we recognize thus their value. One then makes oneself capable of developing science by oneself, starting from the same principles, or modifying and completing them. We have appropriated the power to reason and to know that is given by the great principles of science.

The sciences are very numerous and diversified, and if we count as principles all the premises that may appear in their reasonings, the principles are even more numerous, enough to fill thousands of pages in an encyclopedia. But some principles are more fundamental than others. There are principles of principles, that is principles that serve us to find and justify other principles. The principles of principles are the great principles that open the doors to all knowledge. When he or she tries to understand them in order to appropriate them, the beginner becomes able to know everything that can be known.

The principles of the principles of logic, mathematics, physics and biology are presented and explained in the following chapters. As the principles of the principles of psychology and epistemology were presented in the first two parts, this book gives an overview of the most basic principles of the most basic sciences.

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