Epistemology and Metaphysics

Humans are naturally curious. This is most obvious one interacts with children. “Why is the sky blue?” they often ask. Some may dismiss the question with “because it is,” while some may be mischievously creative in hiding their ignorance by making up the story that birds dip their wings in blue paint and fly across the sky, thereby making it blue. The parts they miss, of course, are the clouds. Others may respond more accurately, explaining that the particular gas molecules in the atmosphere refract light in such a way that the colour blue is caused by Rayleigh scattering. However, even after such a scientific explanation, children sometimes ask, “but why?!” The point is, children ask plenty of questions, all of the time, so that they may better understand the world around them.

Although our questioning may become more selective as we age, evidence of our curiosity and its results are seen in scientific progress. From a psychological perspective, there are the well-known nature-nurture debates in which psychologists attempt to explain why people develop the way they do. In biology, extensive research into myelin sheath fabrication is a step forward in understanding our minds, as well as understanding how to potentially cure such debilitating diseases as multiple sclerosis. All such methodic inquiry may be traced back to Francis Bacon in the late 16th century when he developed the scientific method.

The scientific method, as most know, is a meticulous procedure by which we may come closer to knowing by disproving all contrary factors. The key word is closer. Inherent to the scientific method is that we may never absolutely say we know anything, thus rendering science much closer to philosophy than many would find comfortable. Our society is reliant on science for the buildings we live and work in, the cars we drive, the clothes we wear, and even the food we eat. How can we say that we don’t know that these things will work, and prove that they will be what they are? In the end, for the most part, it’s a matter of mathematic probability following extensive trial-and-error testing.

This brings me to the point — what can we be comfortable knowing? 18th century philosopher David Hume defined the problem that past occurrences do not have any definite relation to future ones, and thus we cannot depend on experience for determining what will occur in the future. He argued that we cannot ever know anything for certain — not even that the sun will come up tomorrow morning. His argument was so logical that it took a great deal of time before anyone came up with a solid counter-argument to straighten out the intellectual confusion he caused.

All the same, even today we are still left with a lack of definites. We often gloss over the gaps in our understanding and forget about them. One of my favourite such examples is societal influence on “intelligence”. According to my handy third edition of the Oxford Dictionary of Current English (2002), intelligence is “the ability to gain and apply knowledge and skills.” What does that mean? If it truly is about an “ability to gain and apply” then it is referring to potential intelligence, not current intelligence. How can we claim to measure or identify intelligence if it is only potential”?and not yet in existence? It is certainly not like potential energy that can be applied to mathematical and physical formulas. Yet our society insists on measuring intelligence by means of “IQ tests” and other forms of testing, including university exams. It’s interesting that our society places such an emphasis on something that is essentially indefinable, and subsequently immeasurable. Somehow, however, it is measured all the time, and people are often categorized as “intelligent” or “not intelligent.” The child in me asks, but why??

This is only part one of what, to philosophy students and introspective thinkers, should be natural. To all others, it’s a challenge to revive that natural curiosity, and make the world a more interesting world to live in. Don’t take what people say for granted — remember to ask why. You’ll be surprised at how much people don’t know.

Oxford (2002). The Oxford Dictionary of Current English. Jane Pearsall, ed.