How do we know?

Thomas Wijck, The AlchemistTwo alternative views, according to Tom Wright: positivism, and critical realism. Okay-

in Positivism, some things are objectively true, and we may have unquestionable knowledge of them based on our sensory experiences. Other things are subjective, for example the quality of works of art, where “It is beautiful” only means “I like it”. Something which may not be verified is ungrounded belief, so nonsensical.

Knowledge of history comes between. Primary sources are evidence of what happened, and that evidence might be doubtful on some ground, or conclusive. Having made forensic arguments about evidence, I am quite familiar with alternative views of fact. Wright poses the question whether history is a type of objective knowledge, or really subjective. I find it hard to imagine that anyone would see that as either/or: it is clearly a spectrum. Few seriously asserted historical propositions are entirely certain or entirely unsupported.

There is also phenomenalism: I cannot be certain of the external world, only my sense data. Well, atoms are mostly empty space, and particles may be in two places at once until they are observed, but I act as if my sense data relate to external events.

Wright proposes “Critical realism”- there is an external reality, which may be known in part, and may be known better through critical thought and engagement with evidence. Well, yes.

No human being has a God’s eye view of certainty, but forms an understanding of new information in the context of old understandings. A new-born baby is unable to focus his eyes. First we focus, then we interpret the information we sense. I may not be really, objectively a woman, but that understanding fulfils some of my purposes, or my society’s purposes. A better understanding may be possible.

Wright seems right to me, when he says my point of view depends on that of my associates. Few of my thoughts are entirely original. There is no detached observer: everyone has an interest, he says.

A man recorded in 2003 asserted that there were thirty billion stars in the galaxy. More recently I have heard a hundred billion, then two hundred billion. This shakes my confidence a little, but I hope that experts now have more evidence, and better ways of understanding that evidence- a better answer, though still perhaps an inaccurate one. I knew already that Space is really big. Understanding builds on earlier understanding. This means that people believed in phlogiston long after there was clear evidence against the theory, but also holds out hope that understanding may improve over time.

13 thoughts on “How do we know?

  1. Well … I lost you somehow. You don’t see easy to lost. For better or worse, I tend toward Positivism. I know what I know; I see what I see. I couldn’t wait to get to Venice, for a summer with friends in a rented villa (three years ago) …. it was utterly vile, dirty, dingy, smelly, and for some reason my bedroom that had looked (and did look) stunning, smelled like a latrine, dead fish and sickening cooking smells. So … for me … that’s Venice. God knows what would happen if you fell in that stinking canal/sewer. We used the front door and the street. Anyway, I do tend toward positivism.

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  2. When we start out, it is my experience that what we think we know and what we feel we are depends almost entirely on what other people see in us, or think about us. I identified my characteristics depending on what people thought of me. Ageing – hurray! – has been a process in learning to decide for myself what is true, about me, about the world, and how everything fits together. I am not entirely swayed by arguments either way, these days, but rather prefer to read beautiful prose – like yours – and decide, based on what I experience in the moment.

    A guy I met this morning seems to inhabit his space so confidently and joyfully. I am learning to do that, I hope.

    XXXX 😀

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  3. I do not believe in objectivity. Or, more precisely, I have learned over the years that one man’s objectivity is another’s subjectivity. Which is why dialogue in the interests of mutual understanding is so darn important. And probably why they’re so darn hard to pull off…

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    • I believe in truth in the mind of God, that is, too complex for me to know, but I can get closer to it, or further away. If you want mutual understanding, that might be impossible too, but again I can get closer to it, or further away…

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      • I believe the Absolute cannot be dismissed absolutely, but I also believe we can only see it through the eyes and minds of others. As for the mind of God, well, I believe that it is simply(?) our minds reflected as one off of the unknown. That there is Truth, there is Truth–but I can only ever grasp truth. And listen to whatever truth you have in your turn grasped. If we put them together, we may come closer to Truth, but it is always but an approximation: the infinite finitely viewed…

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  4. My middlest today told me how he could not see his head. I told him perhaps he didn’t have one. I asked him if I had a head. He said yes because he could see it. I asked him could he be tricking me? This conversation brought me 2 whole minutes of peace of and quiet while he had a think about it!

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