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Walking through the forest, you find a wristwatch and a rock. You think the watch must have had a designer. It’s complex and wouldn’t appear in nature randomly. It has the appearance of design for a purpose. But the rock doesn’t stand out and require explanation, and the rock’s exact shape is basically random, so it doesn’t appear to be designed.
Where does design come from? From intelligent designers (people) created by biological evolution. How does intelligence work to allow creating design? Evolution of ideas. There are no other known answers to these major questions. This is a really hard problem and evolution is the only known answer. There aren’t even any promising leads for other answers.
Evolution is a general theory about variation and selection of replicators, and evolution applies literally to ideas (this isn’t an analogy, metaphor or loose comparison). An idea that is a replicator is called a “meme”.
Knowledge is ideas with design for a purpose. Equivalently, it’s information which is adapted to solve a problem. More informally, knowledge is good, useful ideas (as against bad and false ideas).
Knowledge is created by brainstorming ideas, including variants of previous ideas, and then using criticism to reject errors. A criticism is an explanation of why an idea is mistaken. This is literally evolution: it’s replication and selection (of ideas).
What types of criticism are valid? Lots. There isn’t a list of allowed criticisms. Instead, methods of criticism are ideas themselves, which are evolved. You can invent new types of criticism, and you can criticize types of criticism.
This conception of knowledge doesn’t require justification, authority or infallibility. It corresponds to actual real-world knowledge, like science, regardless of whether it meets other criteria which people would like for some reason. For example, ivory tower academic philosophers demand that knowledge be justified, true, and belief, or else they say it’s not real knowledge – even though their demands are logically impossible and science works anyway.
Evolution is able to create knowledge because it’s a process of error correction. There’s no way to create only good ideas but no bad ideas. We can create ideas (brainstorm guesses), but lots of them will be bad. To get good ideas, there must be an error correction process. Rather than prevent or avoid all errors, we make and then correct some errors by critically considering our ideas, finding errors and rejecting them.
Knowledge is created by generating ideas and correcting errors in them. That’s what evolution does. The more errors are corrected (and the more important they are), the more progress is made (knowledge quality improves).
How do you know what is and isn’t an error? Fundamentally, you use fallible judgement. You have to think, and you may screw up, and there’s no getting away from that. There are techniques to help you think better. For example, you can understand that good ideas are solutions to problems, in contexts. When in doubt, try to understand the intended purpose of an idea and consider how it would achieve that purpose (in the context/situation it’s supposed to work in) and whether that would work.
Evolution creates adaptation (design) for a purpose.
For biological evolution, that purpose is the survival and replication of genes. As a pretty good approximation, animals evolve to have more great grandchildren by being able to survive, get a mate, and (for some species) raise their children. When you examine animals, you see their design features (such as legs, eyes and fur) help accomplish that purpose.
Human minds are capable of evolving ideas to accomplish purposes of our choice. Criticism is our way of considering if an idea meets its design goals. A criticism either points out a way an idea fails at its design goals (fails at its purpose) or it’s an incorrect criticism. That’s the overall guiding concept for how to evaluate criticism. Note that we should also criticize our purposes (goals), not just our approach to accomplishing them.
Many people wrote about evolution before me, such as Charles Darwin and Richard Dawkins. The authors I’m drawing on most, when connecting evolution to epistemology, are Karl Popper and David Deutsch.