What Can We Know?

As you might have guessed, the purpose of part one of this series on epistemology and metaphysics is to tickle the brain and revive its natural curiosity. For a proper foray into philosophy, one must think like a child (the most natural of philosophers) and persist in inquiring, never just dismissing ideas. To put the point–distinguishing adults from children–into perspective, imagine that in the middle of dinner the plates in front of everyone started floating. Proportionate to age, the adults and teenagers would be in the greatest shock, while children would accept it as one of the unexpected facts of life. Children, particularly the younger ones, do not have the built-in expectations that come with age. Humans are highly prone to categorization, thereby dismissing the unlikely as impossible and the likely as real or knowledge.

To go further, let’s say there’s a boy named Jonathan sitting in the corner at a party, not feeling especially social. As he looks around at all the people behind him, he notices that someone knocks a piece of cheese off a platter. As soon as the cheese hits the floor, a mouse comes running by, picks up the cheese, sniffs it, and begins munching on it. Jonathan attempts to bring this to another party guest’s (Sam’s) attention. By the time Sam looks, the mouse is gone. Sam doubts that the mouse was there at all and believes that Jonathan fabricated the story, while Jonathan insists it’s true. Jonathan knows it was there. A girl named Amy in the meantime hears the bickering and says, “I’ve always known Jonathan to be honest, even if I hadn’t seen the mouse, I know it was there because Jonathan says so.” Sam persists in his claims that seeing is believing. Because he didn’t see the mouse, he knows there never was a mouse. By this time, the party host catches on to the conversation and declares that it is impossible that a mouse was there, since they had an exterminator in the other week, so he knows there are no mice in the house.

Noticeably, the prejudices and opinions of everyone involved leads them to know different things in the same situation. Another twist is that Jonathan, not being familiar with his rodents, misidentified the animal, rendering his argument false and Amy’s premise valid but argument false, while Sam’s argument remains dubious. Only the host is correct in asserting, “there are no mice,” though the potential for other rodents may or may not be considered. Knowledge, in this case, is a matter of perspective. Or is it? Epistemology is an examination of exactly these points. It’s a division of knowledge into the adequate and inadequate. Epistemology, in other words, is the branch of philosophy that deals with knowledge, delving into the questions of what we can and cannot know.

To further complicate matters, consider Plato’s allegory of the cave. Plato’s basic belief was that there is an ideal world (many today call it heaven) where everything exists in perfection, while our world is a poor duplication of the ideal and in constant flux in the attempt to become perfect. Plato explained his beliefs like this: if humans were chained in a cave so they could not move their limbs or turn their heads and there was a fire behind them, their reality would be limited to shadows dancing on the wall in front of them (this is our world, the poor imitation of the real). For argument’s sake, lets say that one of these people in the cave escapes, and is able to see the predicament humans are in and that the light is merely a slight illumination of their limited world (the cave), and attempts to explain this to the people still chained. Some will dismiss his claims, content with their limited knowledge. Others will escape and wander outside the cave, dazzled by the brightness of the sun. These escapees are what Plato described as true philosophers, those who understand true knowledge.

Plato’s ideas have been mostly dismissed today, and Aristotle, a student of Plato, was arguably his biggest critic. While both agreed that humans are blessed with reasoning and that inquiry is supreme, Aristotle emphasized the philosophies of science and the study of the material world. He argued that the notion of an ideal world beyond our own is foolish, as I leads to the claim that there is a world beyond the world beyond our own, and one beyond that, and beyond that, and when would it end? No, he said, reality exists here. Even if we are limited by what we know, that knowledge is sufficient to us, since it is what is pertinent. Aristotle’s view is t generally accepted today.

However, that does not making knowing any simpler. In fact, the scientifically-minded Aristotle was convinced that the world is divided into four elements (five, if you count “Void” which is beyond our world, i.e., outer space). The lowest level is Earth, next is Water, then Air, and then Fire. Aristotle developed a complex reasoning system that, some claim, set back progress in science for a number of centuries because his logic seemed so reasonable. Aristotle taught such things as that a dropped rock falls t the ground because it wants to return to the Earth, and fires burned upward because they want to reach the Fire in the outer atmosphere. This sounds silly today, but it was widely accepted for a long, long time.

While Aristotle’s teachings remain influential, particularly in the area of discourse, we now know that rocks fall because of gravity (and we have further realized that gravity is consistent, that large objects do not fall faster than smaller ones, contrary to popular belief 1,000 years ago) and that combustion occurs in the presence of oxygen and breaks down the elements of materials so that most of them escape into the atmosphere as they are released as gasses. Our knowledge has been perfected. Or has it?

The fascinating thing about our constant search for knowledge is that we are constantly progressing, and therefore unable to identify when we finally “have it.” Take for example, the discovery of the atom, which in Greek means “indivisible” or “smallest form in existence.” When scientists discovered what is currently called an atom, it was believed that no smaller form existed. Today, we know better. In 1897, J.J. Thompson, by use of a cathode ray tube, proved that electrons and protons exist. His plum pudding model (showing that electrons lay embedded in the proton) was later replaced by the more current model in which the neutrons and protons of an atom exist in the center of furiously orbiting electrons. Theories exist about how these electrons orbit beyond the model, and were specifically applied to the hydrogen atom. So, electrons are the true atom, right? Wrong. More recently, it has been discovered that quarks and other smaller forms exist beyond the electron.

When will we finally be able to say we absolutely know what the true atom is? Generally, any form of inquiry will always have a factor of “how can we know for sure?” This prompts the question of “will we ever truly know anything?”

As mentioned in part one of this series, progress in science and human inquiry in general would not have occurred if we did not focus on trends and probabilities. Any student of history, business, science, or even literature knows that trends are the best bet. But again, with the complexity of areas of knowledge, how will knowledge ever be identified? We can’t even trust science when the sciences are just as riddled with pre-conceived ideas as philosophy? To reiterate, I’ve come full circle to the idea that our prior opinions and prejudices greatly influence what we believe. Even infallible sciences, like statistics, have their weak points. Of course, it is impossible to properly gather all of the information necessary to form statistics, so “short cuts” such as cross-sectional research have been developed and accepted as “representative.” While most of us are aware that statistics are inherently impossible to prove and therefore should be treated with caution, I present a rumour I heard, and whether or not it is true, I suggest that we look twice at any claims we hear.

Many of us are familiar with the statistic that 50% of marriages in North America end in divorce, the bulk of which occur in the first five years of marriage. The rumour I heard was that this statistic is based on a census of the number of marriages in one year, say 1995, and that the number of marriages was compared to the number of divorces in another year, say 2000. This, ladies and gentlemen, would be a grave statistical fallacy if it were true, for obvious reasons. But if it weren’t true, it makes you wonder–how did they establish that statistic? Did they just take a group of married couples of one particular year and then follow them for the next five years? What percentage of those people divorce after five years? I don’t know about you, but it made me doubt the accepted knowledge of the rate of divorce in North America. And it also made me wonder about how many other areas of knowledge we have been misled in.

I read an interesting article years ago concerning the famous experiment in the early 1900s in which the early atmosphere was reproduced in a controlled environment. As some may recall, in the experiment, the addition of spontaneous light and heat (lightening) produced a basic life form that became accepted as the precursor to all life forms within the path of evolution. When I was in high school this instance was trumpeted as the brilliant experiment that proved evolution was true knowledge. However, this article that I read pointed out that not only has the experiment not been reproduced since, but also an examination of the scientific method used by those three scientists was not as controlled as previously thought. The experiment, the article claimed, is a hoax. Yet it is still taught as knowledge in schools. The point of all this is that all too often, humans take their prior opinions and believe that they have infallible knowledge when the knowledge doesn’t actually exist. Like those in Plato’s caves, we are playing with shadows.

So when can we say we know anything? Chances are, we can’t. With the variety of opinions in existence today, it may become evident that every point is moot. To bring on a hot topic, let’s discuss abortion. Pro-choicers claim the needs of the mother take precedence, and if her life will be worse for the birth of the child, she should abort. My psychology textbook even claimed that for uneducated young mothers, abortion is typically the best option. However, pro-lifers argue that the embryo is a living organism, that to abort it is murder, and that promoting abortion to vulnerable individuals is not right, particularly considering that the many individuals who have had an abortion may regret it at some point and this regret may be unbearable. So who is right? Obviously, the priorities of pro-choicers and pro-lifers differ, but who has the right knowledge? It would be prematurely dismissive to say that knowledge is subjective. Or perhaps the conclusion is that knowledge is, in fact, subjective?

Clearly much of what is known is influenced by our prejudices, which brings to mind Socrates, Plato’s famous and beloved instructor. Socrates taught that knowledge could be discovered by inquiry, by asking the right questions. If you take any knowledge and subject it to appropriate inquiry, one may find real, consistent knowledge. But then it’s a matter of asking the right questions.

The point is that we can’t take anything for granted. There is so much we don’t know even when we think we do. That is not to say that we have to be afraid to assert opinions, but it is to say that we should know why we believe what we do and always be open to finding a higher form of knowledge. How do we do this? The answer is discourse and debate. Open your minds so you can recognize the fallibility of claims, and search for the higher ideal. Because in the end, whether you believe in a higher power, be it science or God, the point is to search for the ideal.