Folk knowledge

In John Vervaeke's Awakening from the Meaning Crisis lecture series, he models four ways of knowing: participatory, perspectival, procedural, and propositional. This is a rich concept that requires a lot of space to fully appreciate, but entirely changed how I thought about knowledge.

Post-enlightenment Western thought is dominated by propositional knowing. This involves language, facts, and rational thought. Its currency is critical analysis and justification. And in many domains, propositional knowledge quickly advances our understanding of the world. You're right or you're wrong, and theories can iterate towards the truth.

There's other ways of knowing that many of us lost direct connection to. They became less legible and we stopped ecologies of practices to promote them. Yet, they obviously surround us.

Here's a practical example: learning to drive a car. You can read books about driving and watch YouTube videos, but you can't actually learn without doing the driving activity. It's non-verbal and embodied. There are propositional rules, of course, such as right-of-way customs. But nothing replaces time behind the wheel.

Procedural knowing deals with skills, abilities, and know-how. It's the knowledge we gain through practice and repetition, often becoming automatic and intuitive over time. This type of knowing is about "how" to do things, rather than "what" something is. When we learn to riding a bicycle, the process becomes second nature. Once you learn how to balance, pedal, and steer, you don't need to consciously think about each step while riding. This skill is developed through practice, and it's difficult to convey through words alone.

Participatory knowing is about our active engagement and interaction with the world. We shape our environment and our environment shapes us in return. This is deeply rooted in our experiences and is often not easily put into words. A chef's relationship with ingredients and flavors is an example of participatory knowing. Over time, the chef develops a sense of which flavors and ingredients work well together, not just based on theory or recipes, but through direct experience and experimentation in the kitchen. Creating pottery has become a beautiful exercise in participatory learning based on how the clay feels on the wheel.

Perspectival knowing is about our unique viewpoint on the world. It's influenced by our individual experiences, beliefs, and context. It's our worldview — the way we perceive and interpret things around us, taking into account our personal history and the specific situation we find ourselves in. One person may see a political protest as as a brave act of standing up for justice, while another person may view it as a dangerous disruption of public order. Their different perspectives, shaped by their background and beliefs, lead to different interpretations of the same event.

Moving through life at ease requires building skills in all four of these ways of knowing. What are the facts? How do we do it? How do we interact with it? What is our viewpoint?

Science is an institution and process. When people say they "trust science", there's often an implicit ideological and political claim: the authority and institution of science is reliable and trustworthy. Yet fundamentally, we do science. Science searches for and exposes knowledge.

How do we ask the right questions? The hypothesis space is massive. While F=ma models the relationship between force, mass, and acceleration, there's many other models that are similarly accurate yet far more complex. Knowing how to ask the right questions is an open problem in physics, where the strategy that has worked previously seems to be breaking.

Scientific cargo culting is rooted in misunderstandings about knowledge. Someone sees what someone else does, without understanding the how and why. And perhaps the expert can't verbalize it into a cohesive pedagogical practice since it's largely tacit.

Engineering approaches problems from a different direction: instead of trying to build a rigorous ontology tree of propositional knowledge, it robustly tries to solve real world problems. In Building a Cathedral without Science or Mathematics, Bill Hammack shows how people designed complex buildings without structural modeling, simulations, CAD, or any other modern tools.

Engineering isn't better than science, it just approaches knowledge differently. Science is a process to discover facts and build models of the world. When scientists conduct experiments, they're trying to gather data points that contribute to a bigger picture. This knowledge is sensitive to details and assumptions. Engineering, on the other hand, uses propositional knowledge, but also places a focus on procedural and perspectival knowing. Engineers need to understand how to apply scientific knowledge in practical ways to create solutions that work consistently in the real world. This knowledge needs to be robust and effective, as engineers often need to work with parameters and tolerances.

Folk knowledge is engineering for everyday life, relating to things that seem to work or tend to work. Mechanisms don't matter directly. If a certain remedy helps mild conditions, it doesn't particularly matter whether it's a placebo or accidentally "right" for the wrong reasons. It's about practicality.

Part of the problem is using the wrong tool for the job. Not every problem can be isolated into all component variables practically. Practically is what matters here. It pains me that we don't have the incentives to run big studies to understand what diets work best over decades, or the specific dose-response curves of various exercises. We probably could, though. Until then, we need to make decisions about how to live. As it turns out, people who live a long time tend to be quite active, spend time with loved ones, have rooting meaning-making practices, and eat a lot of vegetables and unprocessed foods. And that's good enough for me.

The importance of folk knowledge becomes readily apparent in spaces where our scientific toolkit is currently incomplete. Certain meditative states, such as jhanas, are controversial because they're internal. There's no current scale or detector that can robustly identify these unusual mental states (this may change, though, soon!), and learning them requires a lot of effort.

I have no idea if cold plunging is beneficial to my long term health. But, my life is ridiculously comfortable, and I've found adding targeted stressors to be beneficial. Stressed systems get stronger because they can generalize over larger domains. So I get into cold water regularly.

Relational domains are driven by perspectival and participatory knowing. I can tell you about my wife, but you will never know what it’s like to be in a relationship with her. Understanding her unique ways of communicating love can’t be boiled down to the propositional.

I’ve found it tempting to dismiss folk knowledge as obsolete. It’s often wrong! However, at its best, it’s adaptive and resilient. There's embedded wisdom in tradition, and it’s often difficult to tell what is the core truth its encoding. Each form of knowledge intersects, overlaps, and interacts in beautiful ways.

We are not just observers of the world. We’re active participants, engaging within a world that is chaotic and real. To gain wisdom, it must be experienced from within. The propositional is deeply valuable, but is an incomplete slice of all that is to be known. Seek to forge a deeper connection with the participatory and perspectival forms of knowing. Plunge into experiences that can't simply be reduced to propositions or facts.

You’ll be surprised by how much you learn.

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