Can We Know Anything?


Philosophy has a lot of theories about knowledge. Whether we can know anything, how much we can know, what we need to be able to say that we know. So can we know anything?

I’m no skeptic (in the philosophical sense, not the atheistic sense), so I’d say yes. We can know things. But our knowledge is probabilistic. I don’t think we can know anything with 100% certainty. But we can certainly say that we “know” to a degree that makes it unlikely that we are wrong.

For example, I’d say that I know that Stephen Harper is the Prime Minister of Canada. This is a simple fact for those of us in Canada, and I’d say that I’m 99.9% certain that I know that this fact is true. But there is still the chance that I’m wrong. Perhaps I’m simply dreaming that Harper is Prime Minister, or maybe I’m a brain in a vat. Both cases are extremely unlikely to the point where I’m confident in saying that I know that Stephen Harper is Prime Minister.

But, like I said before, there are many theories. So, can we know anything?

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33 responses to “Can We Know Anything?

  • trotter387

    All knowledge is subjective because we share existence but not the same place.

    Therefore we have ‘known, knowns’ ‘unknown, knowns’ perception and interpretation of the environment real or perceived around us.

    We establish a known as fact by testing and sharing which provides a common understanding but it is uncertain because somewhere this point began with a premise.

    I’ll give you an example:

    My history teacher told me that people believed the world to be flat in the dark ages or to be held up be some mythological body. Yet when you begin to read ancient civilisations especially the seafarers we begin to realise this is really a 19th century construction made for education propaganda.

    (How can you test the accuracy of that statement? I know that from reading not all civilisations believed in a flat earth, I also know industrialists had to be convinced of the worth of education)

    So on the basis of this reasoning we truly know only what we experience if we can explain it – and we continue to look for ways of explaining things therefore everyone is seeking knowledge.

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  • frankie garner

    …i became rather happily caught up in the chance that you were wrong about Harper being PM of Canada…!

    Like

  • Chris Highland

    Yeah, I think this just leads into a circular labyrinth. A little like theology, only a bit more interesting. Socrates’ gave his hint. I think I like best what an old Philosophy prof told us: “tentative conclusions” are about all we can work with. It’s the working with that matters. Yes, we know many things. It’s what we do with that, the pragmatic part, that shows whether we actually know or not. You know?

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  • tulloch1985

    Thanks mdtycho :). Yes I was uncertain the position that was being taken, so apologies if I have committed a Straw Man attack. From other comments this have definately sparked a good thought provoking discussion. Been a pleasure.

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  • gertiesjourney

    Knowledge of any kind is knowledge. We all have different knowledge about different things (or even on the same things).

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  • ryan59479

    I’ve always thought about the “can we truly ever know anything?” argument in terms of the argument about halving the distance between two things. If you halve the distance between two things incrementally, theoretically, they should never touch. That works fine in a mathematical sense. But in the physical world that we live in we know that, to us anyway, two things can clearly touch each other.

    It’s like physics; we have one theory to explain how things work on a large scale, and one theory to explain how things work on a smaller quantum scale. And that’s why I think I like your mentioning of probability when it comes to “knowing” something. It’s also why I see no problem in a duality here. I think it’s perfectly acceptable to say that in an abstract sense it’s not possible to ever truly be 100% certain about something. But in a practical, physical sense it is possible.

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  • charles

    I think the definition of knowledge should contain the word “consistency.” The things I claim to “know” are things that I repeatedly observe, and when they change I have an explanation for the change that is also a repeatable phenomenon. Consistency does not mean perfectly predictable… the consistency might be in the form of a probability distribution. Does this break down when I get to things that are chaotic, or is the fact that chaotic things are always chaotic make them consistent in some sense?

    As for knowledge of the Christian God, my problem is that the Bible seems to claim certain things about how God interacts with me, but these things are not consistent. Prayer seems ineffective, with what follows indistinguishable from coincidence. God promises to lead and guide me, but when I pray for guidance I get nothing and end up having to just guess for myself. Then I use post-hoc rationalization to get God of the hook in some way.

    “Knowledge” of God is not the same as “knowledge” in science, or even history. It is ephemeral, subjective, elusive, inconsistent. When someone says they “know” anything about God, I want to quote Indigo Montoya… “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

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  • samcroarkin

    Many of the debates on this topic stem from the fact that when evaluating the probability of truth of a given assertion, the type of evidence is important.

    For “science”, empirical evidence that may be physically perceived and measured is more important. For math, abstract spatial reasoning is more valued. For many theists, neither of these are suitable proof (for or against) their own beliefs and feelings.

    That is the problem of arguing the existence of gods based on empirical evidence: most people’s beliefs in such are based on feelings and abstractions. I’m not saying they are wrong; I am simply stating that the way things are counted (or not counted) as evidence are different.

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  • heathervlittle

    Reblogged this on mynovelstory and commented:
    Interesting and good read

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  • Jim Maher

    I think the second we say we ‘know’ something, and are unwilling to listen to or entertain any other ideas in relation to that thing we ‘know,’ we’re losing something.

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    • heathervlittle

      Agree . Makes us unwilling to listen to other people

      Liked by 1 person

    • johnspenn

      The key phrase being “and are unwilling to listen to or entertain any other ideas in relation to that thing we know”

      Sometimes it seems to me it would be justified to be unwilling. For instance, “I exist”. I’m not really willing to listen to anyone try to refute my knowledge of that fact, except maybe to get a chuckle. In other words, we can know some things and be confident that any other position than that knowledge is patently absurd.

      That said in general we should always be open to review and discuss evidence for and against postions we hold in regards to our knowledge. We can know something and still be willing to consider our knowledge may not be accurate.

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      • Jim Maher

        Absolutely. There are certain things that don’t require a ton of debate to find an accord among friends. ‘I know that if I punch this sidewalk, it will hurt.’
        All silliness aside, I think what you said about being open to review and discussion is what will help us all in the long run.

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  • premojas

    Reblogged this on Dear Beloveds and commented:
    Plz see this without problems… “Can We Know Anything?” No is the answer… you have to be bigger than universe, than may you know everything. May than you are not interested to know everything?

    Like

  • premojas

    He don’t worry, I re-blog you! I saw somewhere the word: improvisatietalent… click

    Like

  • johnspenn

    It seems to me that there are some things that we can know with certainty, such as the proposition “I exist” and things we can know with less certainty, such as the assertion that one of the authors of this blog, “withteeth”, is studying botany and enjoys blacksmithing.

    Sometimes we deal with information at face value until we have reason to more closely examine it. I would think that most of our knowledge is based on our evaluation of what is most likely to be true given the information we have amassed on any given subject.

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    • mdtycho

      that is exactly the problem,those “certain” things how would we prove their certainty?We cannot do so and they are basically axioms.

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      • johnspenn

        I may not be able to prove to you that I exist, however I still know it to be true. You could say the same of your existence.

        We can offer evidence to support our propositions but actually proving them is a much higher and nearly impossible burden. My goal is typically to try to show that the propostion is a reasonable belief to hold based on available evidence.

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      • mdtycho

        Typically what happens is we define somethings to have probability 1(axioms) and then assign probabilities on every other event in relation to the axioms.So your existence is one of those things that is assumed (an axiom) and from it you can deduce the probability of other events.

        The point is the axioms are assumed to be true,not because they are more logical than everything else but because something has to be assumed.

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  • tulloch1985

    Spot on! :). This problem arises when people try to justify invalid or weak positions by attempting to reduce counter-arguments to same level. This done by confusing probability with possibility, “you can’t prove your idea 100%, so you must give my idea some respect”. We can drop a ball 1000 times, but respect should not be given to one who says it will float up next time. But I’m preaching to the choir now, great post.

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    • mdtycho

      Scientific knowledge is probabilistic and probability is a much stricter standard than possibility as you say,but we cannot prove that the scientific method is the supreme method of finding truth.Thus in that way even probabilistic analysis is one of many “possibilities” for a method of finding truth granted it is the most reliable method we know of,but we cannot then ridicule people who claim to have had a personal encounter with God.

      The reason for this might possibly be:If an omnipotent God exists and values faith highly,that is belief without repeatable observation and experiments,for whatever reason, surely this God would not then allow Himself to be amenable to the scientific method(being omnipotent and all)?

      Liked by 1 person

      • tulloch1985

        Thankyou for the reply mdtycho :). Yes it is possible there may be a method out there better than the scientific method to ascertain truth, but for now it is the best we have.

        The hypothetical argument put forward for the person claiming existence of God does fall short logically, and these rules are important because they are safefguards against pseudoscience, quacks, conspiracy theorists, etc.

        His argument which involves God’s deliberate attempt to raise faith by hiding outside the observable universe is unfalsifiable, and implies a reversal on the burden of proof (negative claim instead of the positive claim).

        If we were to give this argument the same level of respect as one that survives the rigourous obstacles of the scientific method, then any claim can be made, all you have to do is make it unobservable and untestable.

        I think the arguments around “Knowledge” tend to become semantical, I’m almost certain everyone knows that nothing can be proven to 100%, and what is right today may be wrong tomorrow, but this hijacking of knowledge tends to be committed by those who are aware that their arguments are weak or don’t follow logically.

        “If knowledge is so loose weave of a morning do struggle to decide whether to leave your apartment via the front door, or the window on the second floor”Tim Minchin-Storm.

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      • mdtycho

        @tulloch1985 yes it is true that if we setup a rule system that allows anyone to claim anything unfalsifiable, then the door is left open for quackery that is not what I’m saying,all I’m saying is that it is possible that we live here on this earth who have experienced God personally and I am one of them(before that I was atheist)

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      • charles

        A reasonable question then is why this God who supposedly longs to have a relationship with us does not allow Himself to be observed by our senses. Why does He hide?

        The following questions are sincere… I really want to know.
        1. How have you experienced God personally?
        2. You were an atheist before. Were you the sort of atheist that had really thought about why you were an atheist, and read lots of atheist literature, etc.?
        3. What convinced you to believe in God?

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      • mdtycho

        @charles
        1.It’s a rather long story but basically God revealed Himself to me through what I consider to be miraculous events in that the things I most needed at the time were provided to me and in such a way that it was made clear that it was only through God that those things occured.

        The revelation of God occured over one night in my case so it was not gradual,I was in my bed unable to sleep and something kept saying inside of me:pray;of course I resisted being atheist but I couldn’t sleep so I started reviewing every logical argument against the existence of God as a way of shutting this voice up.

        I continued doing this until about 2am when I could not resist anymore and so I prayed and the words of the prayer did not come from me and I do not remember them but after the prayer I had a tremendous sense of inner peace and God was speaking to me (not a disembodied voice but more like within my mind but unlike my own thoughts,hard to describe) and all the questions that had bothered me and led to my atheism were no longer relevant because I had just met God and so questioning His existence was redundant and some He graciously answered (i.e I understood for the first time why His love for us was inseparable from our having free will and this means that He does not intervene everytime we wish Him to).Regardless,it is impossible to know God only intellectually,one needs a personal encounter.
        2. I wouldn’t say I had read a lot of atheist literature per se but I was familiar with the scientific argument for the non-existence of God and I thought and engaged with a lot of people on such which only served to strengthen my atheism.
        3.Refer to 1.;I would like to add that prior to my encounter I had been taking treatment for bipolar disorder and since then I have had no need for it(I AM NOT SAYING PEOPLE SHOULD STOP TAKING THEIR MEDICINE,JUST RELAYING MY PERSONAL STORY!!!)
        I do not know why He wants us to have faith(rather than revealing Himself to our senses) all I can say is that He revealed Himself to me therefore I am certain He exists and I trust His motives.

        I would like to end by saying everyone can have a personal encounter with God,just ask.Even if you are atheist just pray an honest prayer to God telling Him why you don’t believe in Him,He appeared to me and saved me and my life is now much better.I don’t know what is happening in your life right now,but often people are angry at God because of what churches or christians have done to them and I would encourage you to tell God all of this in a prayer.

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      • charles

        Thanks, mdtycho. One thing that stood out to me about what your wrote is the following. You wrote, “I would like to end by saying everyone can have a personal encounter with God,just ask.” But that is not what happened to you… You didn’t ask, the voice came to you. God (if that’s what the voice was) came to you, you did not ask first. I feel like you are promising something that actually did not happen to you. It would seem more accurate to say “Some people to whom God chooses to reveal Himself will have a personal encounter with God. Asking or not asking is irrelevant. Just be open to Him if He decides to speak to you.”

        That has been my conclusion lately… that there is nothing I can do to find God. If He exists, it is up to Him to make me believe or not. That seems consistent with what I read in the New Testament, actually.

        I have prayed, although less lately. I want to keep an open mind about the existence of God, and the truth of Christianity, but it is difficult given all that I have been learning the last few months.

        Follow-up question… You described how God revealed Himself to you at first. Has He spoken to you since? What did He say?

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      • mdtycho

        I will also pray for you charles 🙂 and yes He has spoken to me since but not recently and not regularly( most of what was said is personal but I would be happy to share it with you in more private means).I should have probably mentioned that a few days before this encounter I had dared Him to take my life if He existed so maybe that was a form of prayer?

        I would advise you to be completely honest in your prayer,tell Him why you think He does not exist,ultimately it is up to Him but He did promise to answer everyone who seeks Him.

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  • mdtycho

    Making a probabilistic statement (or any answer to your question) is equivalent to saying the original axiom (humanity exists and is able to observe) has probability 1 because probabilistic arguments make no sense if there are no probability 1 events to compare all other events to.

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