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How do we know what we know?

August 23, 2010
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Most of the time we spend our efforts thinking about what we know and trying to increase that. Today I’d like to spend time discussing something more foundational: how do we know what we know? This was sparked by reading a student exam in which a student answered, in response to a question about the scientific method, that science can admit that it is wrong, while religion can’t. This is exactly the sort of claim that makes me want to tear my hair out. First, it implicitly treats science and religion as opposites. Secondly, it makes a claim that I simply don’t think stands up to the light of day. However, this student is certainly not alone. Indeed, this sort of claim is a common one among scientists.

For scientists this unwillingness to make definite claims that are meant to stand forever is a bragging point. It’s a bragging point for two reasons: first, scientists have been wrong before and so reality dictates that we can’t be certain we’re right this time, and second, the very nature of things dictates that we can’t ever be certain. Once we put it like this a number of things should fall into place. Primarily we see that admitting that you might be wrong is actually part of humility. This seems simple, but it’s pretty easy to mess up.

The problem is that you are checking on your brain with your brain. If your brain can be wrong the first time it can also be wrong when it comes to checking how it did the first time and it doesn’t necessarily need to be wrong the same way. People have a tendency, both in their individual lives and in the shift of culture, to overcorrect. We make a mistake and we fix it by making the opposite mistake. To complicate things, there are normally a lot of mistakes to make. For instance, should we view sin more as a juridical problem (a crime to punished) or a medicinal one (a disease to be cured)? There’s one point on the scale that’s correct and every other point is wrong (although some less wrong than others). What’s more, if you find that you’ve erred on one side you need to make sure you don’t overshoot in your correction and end up wrong in the opposite manner.

This becomes even more complicated when the categories we are dealing with are not clear-cut. For instance, judging someone’s attitude and the correct response to it is a mental task. It involves the collection of data (tone of voice, body language, and past history of interaction to name a few of these data sets) and the analysis of that data to produce an answer. That’s a task easy enough to mess up without adding the criteria that we think the correct response should be Christ-like, which requires additional data and analysis (who is Christ and what is he like?). We could mess up any section of this and at some point we might also mess up by spending too much time thinking about the response, either because we make the response too late or because we use our time unwisely or because we simply spend to much time focused on ourselves by thinking about our response. The simple reality is that we will fail and that history shows that we’ll be in very good company when we do. Nothing but arrogance can give us unshakable certainty in the products of our human minds.

But, some people will say, isn’t religious knowledge free from uncertainty because it’s a product of God’s mind, not ours? It would not be arrogance to claim that God is smarter than us. In my second paragraph I said that the very nature of reality dictates that we can never be certain and I’m about to address this. How does religious knowledge come to us? I once had an atheist assert that the problem with religious knowledge was the Bible, because once you tell someone that the Bible is the word of God they have a document that is completely certain, and you can’t reason with them anymore. But the Bible is far from straightforward and even if it was reading is a task that involves your brain at a number of stages. You take information about the page and turn it into information about words. You take information about words and turn the words into sentences and paragraphs and then turn those into meaning. With the Bible this isn’t even particularly easy as you sometimes have to develop a complex theory of mind, tracking what people know (which is different than what you know) and how their culture might cause them to view the things they know. Having done that, you then need to figure out whether they are in the right or in the wrong, how they were in the right or in the wrong, and then, before you can come up with this supposedly completely certain command, figure out how you can emulate what they did right and avoid what was done wrong.

Perhaps the Bible is a bad example. Perhaps your pastor’s sermon is a bad example, because you have to interpret that, too. Perhaps your favorite Christian author, the advice of your Christian friends, and the fullness of the Church universal at the grand Ecumenical Councils all suffer from the same problem. But what about the voice of the Spirit? I sometimes sarcastically refer to this as the “magic info dump” theory. There’s a reason I’m sarcastic about this and it’s not because I don’t think the Spirit speaks. It’s because I’ve met crazy people on the street corner who think God is speaking to them and He’s a wheel of cheese with green tentacles. I’ve met teenagers who think that God is speaking to them and He’s telling them to date the hottest girl in youth group. And then, when she decides that God’s telling her to date this guy too and they go out and the relationship is a complete flop, God changes His mind and tells them to stop dating. However God puts information into your brain at the end of the day it’s still in your brain. And your brain is a messed up place.

So what does this do to certainty? Well, it blows it out of the water. There’s no such thing. At this point some of you will reject everything I have to say because this is simply a reality too terrible to live in. How could we live in a world where we can’t know anything? Take heart, there’s hope. The hope is that you already do everything I’ve talked about, and you handle it without a massive breakdown. What you occasionally do, and I take issue with this when I’m being technical, is that you call it certainty.

Take something we are certain of, in the lay sense. For instance, the phrase “as surely as the sun will rise tomorrow” exists because we’re all pretty sure about that. But, if we want to be technical, the sun might not rise tomorrow. Maybe the sun will blow up overnight, instead. Do you know everything there is to know about the sun? I don’t. I think I know enough not to be worried about this, but I can’t rule it out. I also can’t rule out an alien invasion or the possibility that spontaneous teleportation really does happen and I just don’t know about it (but tomorrow I’ll learn about it horribly when I end up teleported into a sealed mineshaft to asphyxiate). But here’s the thing: if these things happen huge sections of my worldview are wrong. Think about conspiracy theories for a minute. You can start small but it never stays small. Inevitably we end up with not merely the conspiracy, but a conspiracy to hide the conspiracy. For everyone else to be that wrong about the world there must be a huge amount of effort directed at covering up all the clues.

So, while we can’t be certain we can certainly be less uncertain. Am I actually a brain in a tank hooked up to electrodes feeding me the right stimuli? I can’t rule it out. However, I have no reason to believe I am. There’s no decision I make, or phenomenon I observe, that would be better explained by the brain-in-a-tank theory. I’m not certain I’m not a brain in a tank (or a vividly hallucinating poodle, for that matter), but the caveat is meaningless. Nothing about my life is lived as if I’m a brain in a tank.

So should we be certain? No. We can’t be. We should always strive to be less uncertain, but certainty itself is impossible for human minds. We should always retain the humility to remember that we might wrong, and we might be wrong in terrible ways. We should always examine ourselves and never cease to root out error where we find it lodged in our souls. But at the end of the day we stand where everyone does, integrating what our senses give us to try and figure out the world we’re living in. Given that we need to ask ourselves a real question: how well do we know what we know? Do we know it like we know the sun will rise tomorrow, or do we know it like we know about quantum physics? And if we know that we know what we know well can we stand and explain that and make a good defense?

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. prin permalink
    August 23, 2010 6:11 pm

    What the so-called science supporters don’t realize, I think, is the bias. They see the bias in religion very easily, but present them with bias in science and they scoff, even when there are a flurry of news reports confirming it (i.e. the guy who was paid a fair sum to say (falsely) that vaccines were linked to autism).

    Tim Keller also likes to talk about the constants. What dictates that these constants should all stay constant? Merely our absolute dependence on it? (I’m totally putting that as my facebook status in the middle of the night as per my usual philosophical meanderings.)

    The more you know, the more you know you know nothing at all. And until people realize that, both the concept and that they actually know nothing, their arguments stem from ignorance… *shrugs*

    (And btw, God totally keeps telling me to date nobody, but I refuse to listen. :D)

    Totally. (This comment needed one more just for emphasis.)

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