Chapter 3 of Jonathan Rauch’s The Constitution of Knowledge (2021) is Booting Reality: The Rise of Networked Knowledge. Thomas Hobbe’s vision of humanity was dark, tribal anarchy. The only way out appeared to be an absolute sovereign who can forcibly impose order and suppress the war of all against all. Fortunately, humanity found a better way. Rauch guides us through the early construction and fortification of the non-tyrannical solution. It remains standing as a strong defense against those now attacking our castle of knowledge.
The revolutions of modern liberalism (economic, political, epistemic), which changed everything for the better, began in the mind one man, John Locke (1632-1704). We spent 12 weeks here (12/17/19 – 3/31-20) excavating C. Bradly Thompson’s America’s Revolutionary Mind (2019). Those ideas and the ones we’re examining now are vitally important to humanity; so, it’s well worth the effort and energy to study them. After showing us how the defensive castle walls of knowledge and truth were erected, Rauch next defines the inner sanctum, the reality-based community, and then moves on to dissect the enemies now hurling fireballs at our outer walls. We’ll examine those fireballs in chapters 5-7.
Locke’s idea revolution had three guiding principles: 1) Natural rights (life, liberty and property); 2) Government by consent; and 3) Toleration (no more bloody creed wars). The key breakthrough was recognizing that knowledge is always provisional. No one has final say. Rauch relies on philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce (1839-1914). Peirce laid the groundwork to conceptualize knowledge not as the product of any individual or even group effort but rather as an emergent property of interactions across a social network.
Rauch concludes this chapter by pointing out our networked truth adjudication system provides three public goods: 1) Knowledge – distinguishing reality from non-reality; 2) Freedom – diversity of opinion; and 3) Peace – no violence or bullying. Political conflict is increasingly a creedal war between contending realities. Thankfully, our current epistemic fortress prevents rival bands of scientists, journalists or lawyers from calling for their opponents to be killed or their ideas censored.
Next week, we get to the actual operating system of the reality-based community – The Constitution of Knowledge.