Building a model of the world is a community project. Series. 5.4.

Recall my project here. In this series, I lay out some “bones” for thinking about the way — the why and the how — the people we depend on for our survival, delectation, and companionship (our peeps) help us navigate the world. And we them. You might pick up these bones, if you find them interesting, and bring them back to your peeps for inspection where, like a team of paleontologists, you go to work. Together, you identify the bones, give them names, see if they are like any you’ve examined before or whether you’ve discovered something new. Maybe a whole new species. Maybe this is a rib, a vertebrae, a toe. Maybe the bones lay this way, maybe that. Maybe this short one goes here, the long one there.

Some bones will go in museum drawers, an inventory that might largely gather dust, the odd bone lifted and reinspected. With others, we make models of the world. And from our models, a veritable museum of natural history.

But need there be a “we” to make these models? Yes, and precisely so if you’ve a language with which to ask this question. And given what this language enables you to do, let’s press on “we” a little further. With a nod of reverence to the artistic and intellectual contributions of the likes of Da Vinci and Einstein, not even those, and, I argue, especially those, we call genius — original, brilliant, fiercely independent — ever truly work alone. If not for Newton, Kant, and Leibniz, among countless others, it’s unlikely Einstein would have, nay could have, offered up his Theory of Relativity. Einstein regarded his precursor’s models of the world and, leaving the originals intact, reworked some of their elements into a more intricate model of his own. How did Einstein accomplish this feat given that none of those geniuses of old survived to lay their bones at his feet? How but for the aid of curators, teachers, and tutors who roll open catalogued museum drawers and flash the contents to wide-eyed students. Like Einstein. And do students keep mum about what’s exposed during these intellectual peep-shows? Pfffft! Not at all! (E.g. U of L Confessions, Rate My Professors, One Class, and StuDocu — of course none of these techie-based sites existed during Einstein’s day, but word of mouth, chalk boards, and paper-swapping work just as well.)

Information (e.g. ideas, facts, attitudes, beliefs) is shared, wittingly or not, in some kind, in some measure, and by some mode, with anyone with whom we come into contact. But it’s shared to the greatest degree with the people with whom we come into contact most often, those with whom we share- living-together. Our friends. Our colleagues. Our lovers.

Einstein’s first wife, Mileva Maric, was well-educated in the maths and physics. In fact, the two met while attending the same university. I’m inclined to think that a mutual passion for both science and each other makes for powerful intellectual collaborators. Yet scholars disagree about whether Maric made any substantive contributions to Einstein’s work. I’ll leave you to your own side in that controversy. But not before I ask you to imagine the conversations Einstein and Maric indulged in as they studied their books and bodies, their backing-and- forthing and all those eureka moments. Ah, to be a fly on the wall, privy to their pillow talk.

How anyone would go about empirically measuring the contribution of one to another’s thoughts and ideas, I haven’t a clue. I do, however, have some inkling about what it is to be so familiar with another so far that we can finish each other’s sentences and answer each other’s questions even before they’re asked. I’ve also some experience of what it is to unjealously surrender ideas to each other, to free-fall hand-in-hand into a brainstorm, lighting a room with flashes of creativity and rattling its walls with thunderous argumentation. I know what it is to bicker, nit-pick, and mock as we chip our ideas out of rock and watch them take form. I know the titillation in discovering a bone during some laborious excavation, or by chance along the edge of a path that I commonly walk. And I’ve nearly burst with the anticipation of laying flesh to that bone, animating it by our mutual inspection. I’m not here describing anything extraordinary. This is what we humans do, we pick things up and share. But here’s the hitch. We do so with such frequency and to such a degree that, cf Hume, we’re most often unaware,

“Such is the influence of custom, that, where it is strongest, it not only covers our natural ignorance, but even conceals itself, and seems not to take place, merely because it is found in the highest degree.”

David Hume, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, Section Four, Sceptical Doubts Concerning the Operations of the Understanding, Part One.


“So much as we ourselves consider and comprehend of truth and reason, so much we possess of real and true knowledge […] In the sciences, every one has so much as he really knows and comprehends. What he believes only, and takes on trust, are but shreds.” 

John Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1, p 115)


We share our doxastic labour as sure as we share living together, i.e. together we vet candidates for belief, consciously or unconsciously. Evolution has assured us mechanisms for doing so. Pam 2019


 “The behavior of fish and birds, and of mammals, including humans, for most of evolutionary history has been dominated by the need to secure food and shelter, to make alliances, and to form social arrangements that would ensure resources sufficient for survival. In humans, the brain uses twenty per cent of the glucose of the body, glucose that is primarily needed to power muscles for action. The glucose used in the brain to power thought processes is therefore precious [bolding mine]. From that perspective, humans do not routinely think in an explicitly rational manner, because heuristic approximations are fast and efficient, and we cannot afford any more explicit rational thought than necessary.”

“Whereas human thought does not generally follow rational, logical processes, the unconscious, heuristic, and associative processes that we do follow nevertheless tend to lead us to defensible conclusions.”

“People hold themselves to a high standard of coherence and rationality so that thinking explicitly about one’s beliefs and defending them to others allows them to be assessed against logical standards.”

Clore, Gerald L. “Psychology and the Rationality of Emotion.” Modern theology 27.2 (2011): 325-338. 


“People remember social information better than they remember physical world factual content.” (266)

“It is clear that we aren’t all that keen to pass on information about the physical world unless it benefits our close family and friends.” (269)

Dunbar, R. I. M. Evolution: Our Brains and Behaviour. New York : Oxford University Press, [2016] 


“The mind’s foundational mechanisms [have] adapted for survival and social success (…) minds did not evolve to evaluate the truth. Our minds were equipped through evolution to wield beliefs that work, whether true or not, and in some cases, irrespective of evidential verification [bolding mine].” (250)

Smith, Aaron C.T. Cognitive Mechanisms of Belief Change. Palgrave Macmillan, 2016. 


“Considering how little we know the confidence we have in our beliefs is preposterous –and it is also essential [to our survival] [bolding mine].” (209)

“For some of our most important beliefs we have no evidence at all, except that people we love and trust hold these beliefs.” (209)

Daniel Kahneman. Thinking, Fast and Slow. New York : Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011.


“Humans are exceptional among animals for both the richness and strength of their cognitive abilities and the extent to which they rely on a wide variety of information communicated by others. These two traits are linked. On the one hand, it would not be possible to rely so heavily on rich communication in the absence of species-specific cognitive abilities, in particular language and advanced mindreading. On the other hand, these individual abilities would not develop or function properly in the absence of cognitive skills, conceptual tools, and background knowledge acquired from others.” (2)

Sperber, Dan, et al. “Epistemic vigilance.” Mind & Language 25.4 (2010): 359-393.


 In Mothers and Others, Sarah Blaffer Hrdy argues that Homo sapiens survived the Pleistocene era “by the skin of their teeth [because…] they were already good at cooperating.”  She says, “There is little doubt that units with greater internal cohesion would prevail over less cooperative groups.” And in these small, hyper-social groups, our “capacities for learning from each other and sophisticated cooperation that flowed from enhanced mind-reading led to unprecedented advances in the realm of culture, and in technology … as a consequence, humans were able to prosper, develop networks of exchange to survive where otherwise they could not, and to eventually spread around the globe.” (29)       

Blaffer Hrdy, Sarah. Mothers and Others. Belknap Press: Cambridge, Massachusetts. 2011. 


 Cynthia Townley notes that “our epistemic practices are deeply cooperative.” (2) Townley defines an epistemic community “as a network of relationships between [people] engaged in epistemic activities and practices (2) [wherein] trust has an extensive role.” (26) Townley, Cynthia. 

A Defense of Ignorance: Its Value for Knowers and Roles in Feminist and Social Epistemologies. Lanham: Lexington Books. 2011.


In his acknowledgements at the preface of a book my husband, Paul, wrote a number of years ago, Paul paid homage the people who, in varying measures, supported his project. But his most stirring acknowledgement is that which he gives his then-wife, Lib (also a philosopher), and which is the most telling for my project here. With Paul’s permission,

“[I have been supported] in greatest measure by my sometimes colleague, always partner, [E.B.]. And this in spite of her being virtually tout court hostile to my own answers to questions both of us are asking. Nothing focusses the mind like the equally focussed mind of a critical but loving ‘other’. To her especially, ta!”


“Some have argued that the naming of kin constitutes the origin of language itself.” (272)

Dunbar, R. I. M. Evolution: Our Brains and Behaviour. New York : Oxford University Press, [2016] 


The names of the people we love are like beads on a Rosary, well-worn worry stones oft-fondled for comfort and reassurance. — Pam Lindsay

Categories: Rhetoric and Epistemology, Series

Tags: , , , , , ,

3 replies


  1. What’s in a name? A face, a voice, laughter, habits….Series 5.1. –
  2. Mattering to each other. Series 5.2. –
  3. Survival. Series 5.3. –

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