How Social Verification Works

 In Building Knowledge

In order to present the evidence in favor of expanding the definition of empirical knowledge to include some things considered subjective, perhaps including things such as experiences that may lead one to form beliefs regarding value judgments and ethics, it will be necessary to elevate some subjective knowledge to a more reputable status similar to that which is given to objectivity.  First, it is necessary to analyze how knowledge can become objective, according to the definition provided earlier in this section.

The most important aspect of the more accurate definition provided above is that objectivity becomes possible not when someone has a perfect understanding of external reality, but when people are able to reasonably conclude that other people can have a similar understanding of some object if they are using similar methods of unbiased observation.  There is a process through which my bias and your bias get whittled away, which leaves us both with a conception of an object that is as unbiased and accurate as any could be.  If a situation is set up in a way such that one is able to imagine what it is like from someone else’s point of view, which they can then be compared and contrasted with their own point of view, then this can allow them to form a conceptualization of an object as it would be observed by anyone.

Objectivity depends on being able to convey empathy through communication in a way that is integrated with acts of perception.  The process through which objectivity is constructed becomes possible only when one perceives an object while also observing other people (and perhaps other conscious beings) who are judged to be perceiving this same object.  The central aspect of this interaction is that one’s perception of objects in a shared space occur simultaneously with perception of other beings who can also perceive, think, and feel.  Our minds automatically analyze our sensory data, and each of us should correctly conclude that there are other beings similar to ourselves.  One can get an idea that other people are having similar subjective experiences based on their reaction to an experience.  If someone else reacts to their perception the same way as oneself does, then it is reasonable to conclude that the other person is having similar subjective experiences.  This empathy allows one to imagine what others are likely experiencing from their point of view, and through this a more detailed conception of the shared space and the objects within it can appear within one’s mind.

The process of realizing through this kind of analogy – that other people’s experiences are similar to one’s own – is what we can call social verification.  Social verification of the inner world is the process through which the private understanding becomes public.  Of course one might say that the physical world is public anyways and that it is publicly accessible whether anyone recognizes it or not, but the truth is that all understandings that one might have of the outer world start within their inner world.  There is a process through which one can differentiate between the public access knowledge and their own private access knowledge.  Before someone has undergone this process, they would have no way of making this mental differentiation.

For example, one can start with actually seeing a tree in front of them and also imagining a different tree near there.  Perhaps this person is a small child who might not be able to easily discern real from imaginary and therefore might not be able to tell which image of a tree is public and which is private.  If this child sees other people and animals touching a tree and these other people and animals are interactive and are therefore clearly understood to not be mere figments of the imagination, this should sort out pretty well that this tree exists in the same outer world as everyone else.  This child does not experience anything similar in relation to their imagined image of a tree, and thus is able to conclude that tree is only in their mind.  To some extent, situations like this occur even to adults.  There are slight variations in our experience in small details that sometimes are misconceptions of reality and we rely on other conscious beings to help us make corrections to our mental models.  Often times, this process is still a work in progress, even for the things in the physical world that we think we know quite well.  For instance, we might sometimes think we hear or see things and we can’t be sure that they are real unless we others corroborate this with reports of their own similar observations.  As such, we rely on others to help calibrate our senses and refine our understanding of external reality and also to weed out illusion and misunderstanding.

Any knowledge gained from experience where one can reasonably conclude that other beings can and do have very similar experiences is therefore socially verifiable, even if it has not yet been socially verified.  Knowledge can be socially verified through a communicative medium, such as the visual medium or the auditory medium.  There is a communicative medium any time two or more beings have the ability to act in a way that affects the other’s perceptions.  The action, which can be anything from a speech act to writing to body gestures, is then a communication that travels through the medium and is perceived by the other.

For example, if we were to take something as simple as a rock and have two or more people touch the rock and pick it up and drop it and listen to the sound, and each of them could see the other’s reaction to looking at it and picking it up and dropping it, and discussing the features of the rock amongst themselves, then the features of the rock are then socially verified.  This process has also allowed them to have a good idea of how the rock is in reality and to minimize biases that are introduced from their own personal point of view, since they have all had opportunities to eliminate prejudices they may have otherwise had towards the rock in the process of viewing it, hearing it, and discussing it amongst themselves.  Each person present therefore can be said to understand the rock objectively.

It should be noted that the process of social verification does not eliminate all biases but does work to minimize them.  Before the social verification process, each person had personal biases.  Afterwards, each of them should have minimized personal biases, and there are likely processes through which a deeper and fuller mutual understanding of this object can be developed.  It is possible, however, for certain kinds of group biases or societal biases to remain if each member of the group that conducted the social verification had certain biases towards the object that were shared amongst them.  Though it may sometimes be difficult, it is possible for people to minimize group and societal biases and to get to the point where the only biases that remain are those that are simply inherent to any person or perhaps to any sentient being.

The question of how to minimize such societal biases is a more complex matter that is mostly outside the scope of this project.  But just to briefly attempt to solve this problem, people can understand their own societal biases by empathizing with people who have had different experiences in life.  If some person observes other people from different cultures and different backgrounds and tries to get a feel for how these others conceive of a given object, then this can allow that person to understand this object with minimal personal biases and also minimal societal biases.

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