Thursday, May 31, 2012

all i Know is that i Know nothing

How do you know what you know?

Have you really ever stopped to ask yourself this question?

How do you know that 2 + 2 is indeed 4? How do you know that hot liquids burn? How do you know that electrons moving create electricity? How do you know that it is healthy to eat vegetable and unhealthy to smoke? How do you know that if you jump off a cliff you will not fly? How do you know? Did you hear it from a friend? From the news? From a teacher? Did you experience it yourself? Do you know? Or do you just believe?

What I am talking about is the philosophical concept of knowledge. We call this branch of philosophy Epistemology and it is concerned with:

What is knowledge?

How is knowledge acquired?

To what extent is it possible for a given subject or entity to be known?

Now, at this point, you may be sitting there reading this article and thinking “Epista-what? What is this guy getting at and what does it have to do with me?” But please, bear with me. As humans, it is necessary for us to carry around a set of beliefs to operate effectively in the world. I mean, if you did not know that you cannot fly after jumping off a cliff, your experience of this world would indeed be limited. However, we rarely challenge these beliefs even though many of us cannot accurately state why we believe one thing over another. Often, when challenged to truly look at our beliefs in a critical manner, many of us find that our beliefs are at the very best unfounded and at the worse false. Now, I think it is important here to make some clarifications. What do I mean when I say belief, truth, knowledge, etc. It is very important, when having these discussions, to be very clear on the meaning of words and concept.

For the purpose of this blog, I am going to take a classical view on the matter. This view is concerned with three main concepts: belief, truth, and knowledge.

Many people take the word belief to mean that one has faith in something. I believe in my favorite sports team or I believe in God. This is not the definition I am concerned with. When talking about knowledge, belief refers to a thought, held by an individual, that is independent of truth or any proof. It is in the subjective world of our own cognitive functioning. It is in our minds. I can believe that a chair will hold my weight before sitting in it however, this may be true or not true. It is only a belief.

Now truth, this concept is a bit harder to define. It has a variety of meanings, primarily being in accord with fact or reality. In scientific terms, truth refers to a fact about the world that has been demonstrated reliably and repeatedly. Now, whether truth is absolute or relative, objective or subjective can be debated. I am not going to get into that yet and will save that for another blog post. Let me just say that, for now, I am concerned with objective, scientific truths about the world. If I sit in the chair and it holds my weight then I can say that my belief was true. If it does not, then my belief was false.

And finally, we can tie these two concepts together and come to knowledge. If I was to sit in the chair and it held my weight then my previous belief was a fact of knowledge. I could then say, instead of believing the chair would hold my weight that I knew the chair would hold my weight. I had knowledge of the chairs ability. A common way to explain knowledge is it is justified true belief. We have knowledge that the earth is round and that the sun rises in the east because the earth spins. We know these things, we do not merely believe them.

Now, philosophers have been debating these issues for a very long time. A very, very long time. Like over 2500 years long! In fact, the whole concept of challenging beliefs in an analytical manner actually comes from one of the most famous classical Greek Athenian philosophers Socrates. Some of you may of heard of Socrates and will be aware that there is no evidence that he actually lived; we have no writings directly from him. All that we know of him is from the writings of one of his students, Plato. I would argue that whether he lived or not is irrelevant. His philosophical ideas and beliefs have largely shaped all of western thought and society. In Plato’s account, Socrates is deemed the wisest man alive by an oracle not because of what he knows but because he is aware of all that he does not know.

After explaining all of this it is time for me to say,

All I know is that I know nothing.

This statement was originally attributed to Socrates although he never said these exact words. However, it is the idea behind the words that truly comes from Socrates. The statement is not meant to be taken dogmatically in the sense that none of us can know anything and that we should just give up. Of course we can know things about ourselves and the world around us; however, I think we all need to start to be a bit more humble and a bit more critical of what we think we know. We all need to partake in a Socratic dialogue with ourselves and with those around us and start to move out of our little bubbles of belief and into the realm of knowledge (I am aware that this did not end well for Socrates however I think it will work out better for us!).

And so, here we are. At the start of a journey that I hope we can go on together. This blog will focus largely on the health phenomenon in our society because that is my background and it is where I feel that there is a great deal of belief with very little knowledge in regular people. I want us all to stop, take a step back, and start to challenge our beliefs. Nothing is off limits.

All i Know