How do we know what we already think we know?

Image credits: Daniel Nanescu

Thanks to education, literacy, and the internet we have the advantage of more accumulated knowledge today than at any prior point in history. But what do we know really, and more importantly, how?

Perhaps you may recall the following exchange between Elon Musk and Flat Earth Society on Twitter from last year.

Elon Musk v/s Flat Earth Society

Amusing. Might, in any case, allow us a chance to reflect upon — How do we know that we know something, except that we’ve always been taught it to be true. What would you do if you met a flat Earth society member? You sure may be tempted to laugh it off and go on about your day.

But to come to think of it, how can you prove the Earth is round?

Are you sure about the theory of evolution? For all you know, it’s supposed to be true. What if you meet someone who says there’s no such thing as macro-evolution, it’s all intelligent design.

What then?

How sure are you about your own views? Are you simply taking refuge in the false security of consensus? Are you taking comfort in the feeling that whatever you think, you’re bound to be okay because you’re in the majority?

Understanding what changed our minds about the Earth being flat, might tell us a lot about what we know, what we think we know, and what we think we can know.

Being aware of our sources of knowledge helps us evaluate the trustworthiness of specific bits of knowledge we may hold today and come to accept in the future.

We can bifurcate our silo of knowledge into two broad categories: things we’ve come to know on our own, and things we’ve come to know from others.

(i) Personal observation: Many of us know a lot by virtue of first-hand experiences. For instance, we know that things fall down when we let go of them. We don’t have to be told about the proverbial falling apple to recognize that, we experience this phenomenon daily.

We sure do not think about our daily experiences systematically but they do constitute a huge part of our knowledge base even though it’s contingent on selective observation and/or over-generalization. We may also assume that what we’ve always known to be true is true simply because we’ve always known it to be true.

For instance, it may be difficult for some to concede that just because things fell down every single time in our everyday experience of the past, they won’t necessarily continue to do so every single time in the future (more on it here).

(ii) External Authority: Perhaps one of the most common methods of acquiring knowledge is through authority. Our parents are the first authorities we rely on as sources of knowledge. Subsequently, we extend this list to include school teachers, textbooks, church ministers, doctors, professors, politicians, and the media.

Evidently, some of these authorities are less reliable than others but we generally trust them because we don’t have the time, nor the expertise to question and independently research every single piece of knowledge we may come across. We can, however, learn to evaluate the credentials of said authority, the methods they use to arrive at their conclusions, and the reasons they may have to mislead us.

Scaling the summit of Mt. Knowledge

Here you are standing on Mount Knowledge, having learned so much from your own experience and borrowing from others too.

The question is, how certain are you about any of your learnings?

This single question shook the entire intellectual world way back in the 17th century.

In 1644, Rene Descartes opened the floodgates of modern philosophy by asking, ‘What can I be certain of?’ and laid the foundations of a field of study, called Epistemology. It entails two major inquiries:

(i) Nature of knowledge — What does it mean to say that someone knows, or fails to know, something?

(ii) Extent of knowledge — How much do we, or can we, know using personal experience, or the testimony of authority?

These inquiries are instrumental in moving an individual from a state of Identity foreclosure to a state of Achieved identity.

Identity foreclosure is a stage in which an individual has a self-identity that isn’t truly exposed to ideas distinct from their own. In this stage, the individual merely adopts the beliefs of parents, friends, and the immediate environment with high levels of certainty.

Achieved identity is when an individual comes to conclusions by actually looking into what it is that informs one’s beliefs. Looking into the information and trying to form a reasoned opinion based on available evidence while recognizing flaws in thinking and understanding one’s own biases (more here, and here).

The key change in this transition is reliance on evidence-based rationality.

The first step is to recognize that we don’t really know much, albeit we believe a lot. Appreciation of the distinction between belief and knowledge goes way back to the days of Plato. While beliefs can be true or untrue, knowledge cannot be categorically false.

JTB account of Knowledge

Knowledge may be defined as a justified true belief (though there are potential problems with this view, see here). For the sake of our discussion, the following is a simple maxim to keep in mind:

If you can’t show it, you don’t know it.

Colloquially, I may be tempted to say something like “I know quantum electrodynamics is an accurate account of all matter and light interactions.” but it’ll be more intellectually honest of me to admit, that perhaps I don’t understand the math and the physics involved to show it myself. It’s best to say, “I believe it to be the case” instead.

On the other hand, I’m comfortable with saying something like, “I know how life forms diversify via descent with modification” because I have reasonable competence in the field of biology. With that yardstick in mind, I hope you’re motivated to explore which of your beliefs are demonstrably true, and which ones may just fall short.

Image credits: Sam Ferrara (The above quote does not appear in Plato’s works in this form)

To truly assess if one is standing on Mt. Knowledge or Mt. Stupid (more here), one must examine if the certainty of their beliefs is in proportion to the strength of available evidence and the robustness of their inference (more here, and here).

It’s inconsequential how deeply you believe it, and for how long you’ve believed it if you be a real seeker after truth, it is necessary that at least once in your life you doubt, as far as possible, all things.

How do you know you exist?

If we’re to go down the road of doubting all things, it’s only fair we begin with the most fundamental claim of our own existence. And that’s exactly where Descartes started himself before famously concluding, ‘cogito ergo sum’. Put simply, Descartes contended that his existence must be a necessary condition for his cognition because if he didn’t exist there wouldn’t be any doubter to do the doubting, to begin with.

This brings us to our first epistemic principle called mental incorrigibility. All this says is that any honest statement of immediate sensory perception is automatically a true proposition. For example, consider the statement, ‘I heard a voice’. It may so happen that the voice I just heard be nothing more than an auditory hallucination, however, I still cannot deny the fact that I did definitely experience a distinct sensory auditory perception.

It has great utility as a theory of truth because it acknowledges our perceptual data for what it is and thus enable us to not only know of our own existence but also of our feelings of hunger, thirst, and pain. Beware, mental incorrigibility can only tell us about our own personal perceptions, and not about the external world itself.

I can thus only claim with certainty that I’m currently hearing a voice, but any claims about the source of that sound must be corroborated using independent evidence. The school of thought which maintains knowledge is primarily grounded in sensory experience is called Empiricism (more here).

The next epistemic principle in our list is axiomatic formalism. All this system says is that certain ‘obvious’ propositions, called axioms, deserve a specific truth value by rote fiat. For instance, the reflexive law of equality, i.e. A = A is asserted outright as ‘true’ to inform our concept of equality.

Once that’s done, it then becomes possible to generate new true propositions out of the old ones by exercising rules of inference, or more simply, operations we’re allowed to perform. For example, one classic rule of inference is the transitive law of equality: if A=B and B=C, then A=C.

Again, such truths are ultimately derived entirely from the raw meaning we impose on the terms used, and not from any direct connection they have to the external world. Thus, it’s best to think of Math and Logic as nothing more than a highly formalized language. The school of thought which maintains knowledge can be inferred from axioms through deduction is called Rationalism (more here).

While mental incorrigibility limits us to make any claims about the external world, and axiomatic formalism suggests that there’s no more truth to the laws of logic than there is to the rules of chess, how do we then actually attempt to describe objective reality?

To address this problem, we must step back and ask ourselves a fundamental question. Why bother?

What difference does it make at the end of the day?

Enters pragmatism.

The only meaningful reason why anyone would ever bother gaining knowledge about the external world is so that we can eventually use that to guide our actions.

The reason we collect empirical data and formulate it as a rationally descriptive model of objective reality is so that we can exercise decisions accordingly. If our understanding of the external world is accurate and consistent, then we should expect similar decisions made under similar conditions to lead to similar outcomes.

If on the off-chance our actions have any influence on the outcome of future events

then, we can use those outcomes to gain real information about the rules governing our reality.

Mental incorrigibility and axiomatic formalism are not mere ends unto themselves, but essential tools for the greater purpose of pragmatically navigating the world. Join them all together and we have what we may call Pragmatic Empirical Rationalism (more here), which is just a fancy way of saying Science!

Science is how we know what we know.

The best thing about science is that even though god may work in mysterious ways, Science works in demonstrable ways. We know evolution happens because the change in allele frequencies that occurs over time within a population, is demonstrable.

We have to stop looking at science as a collection of facts. It is a toolkit of epistemology. A formalized system of gathering empirical data; expressing it within a rational, predictive framework; that allows for testing of predictions against quantifiable actions and/or consequences to inform our conclusions.

These conclusions are not contingent on collective human say so. Thus, it’s inconsequential, for instance, how many people dismiss or cast unwarranted doubt on the scientific consensus about climate change. It still is a real threat with alarming consequences for our species as a whole.

We’re all better off basing our beliefs on scientific results because it ultimately allows us to make real decisions in the real world with maximally predictable outcomes.

Science is the reason we changed our minds about the shape of the Earth (psst, it’s an oblate spheroid). It’s the reason why we know that the stars, which look like tiny pinpricks in the sky, are really huge balls of fire. And the reason why we have amazing technology all around us.

Science: It works, bitches! — Richard Dawkins

It’s not uncommon to come across advocates of ‘other ways of knowing’ (more here), but the scientific method continues to be the single most consistently reliable and successful way of acquiring knowledge.

In this post, we had a brief look at epistemology in Philosophy of Science:

  • Principle of Mental incorrigibility, or simply Empiricism.
  • Axiomatic formalism, or for this discussion, Rationalism.
  • and finally, we nested both of them inside Pragmatism.

In our next post (see here), we look at the vocabulary and the methodology of Science:

  • Facts, theory, hypothesis, and law
  • Principles of fallibilism, falsifiability, and parsimony
  • The null hypothesis and the burden of proof

Don’t forget to share this post with your friends so they know, how we know what we know. Follow Epistemic Worries for Philosophy, Science, and Philosophy of Science.

External links:

  • Evidence for a globe here
  • Foundational Falsehoods of Intelligent Design here
  • List of common cognitive biases here
  • Identifying flaws in thinking (know your logical fallacy) here
  • The problem of induction here
  • The Gettier problem here
  • The Dunning-Kruger effect (Mt. Stupid) here
  • Different standards for evaluating evidence here
  • Different kinds of inferences (inductive, deductive, abductive) here
  • More on empiricism and rationalism here, and here
  • Science as pragmatic empirical rationalism (Pragmatic theory of Truth) here
  • Alleged other ways of knowing here

You must edify yourself by striving constantly to not betray your own ignorance; only then can you claim to have any acquaintance with knowledge at all.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store