Of Knowledge

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By Joseph Cox

            We’ve built great walls, forged empires, decimated other species, built nations on the ashes of those that came before, and have written, pictured, or otherwise described a preposterous amount of information. We’re able to conceive of infinities, pin ourselves down in the depths of perspective, and alter the fabrics of time with spoken words, yet inside us all there lies the greatest trickster of them all. That trickster has caused the massacres, the enslavements, the wars, the joy, the art, and the beauty too. At the end of it all, the human mind is the greatest trickster of them all. Never has a species so advanced used their minds so mindlessly.

I do not aim to assert that humans are stupid, but I do wish to assert that we are wired to make sense of a senseless reality. Such little time is granted to the idea that we, as collectives or individuals, may be much closer to knowing nothing than we are to knowing everything. Here we stand, constantly at the cutting edge of technology and scientific advancements. Our phones talk to us, our bodies are fueled by genetically engineered foods, our cars are becoming electric, and our lives are becoming increasingly convenience based, but what do you know, truly, about the world around you? I don’t possess the faintest idea of how a phone works, how my text messages manage to zoom through space, how my food is crafted, or even how my car manages to propel itself onward using gasoline. Yet, here I am, preparing to tell you about why you may know nothing at all. Perhaps, at this moment, you’re feeling as though you know this article will do nothing to suede your perspective on the world, or perhaps you’re pondering whether or not this article is a waste of your time. You might even reach the conclusion that some wacky, philosophic, college kid hasn’t the slightest chance of blowing your mind. Deep down, you might even think that you know I could do nothing to alter your reality. At least, I can’t do it in the written word. Though, before you go, I do hope that you’ll consider the following question: how does knowledge feel?

How does it feel to know that I can’t change your mind, or how does it feel to know that I might? Even better, when you turn on a burner, how does it feel to know that it’s hot? I’d imagine there’s at least some sense of certainty to these various thoughts, or a comforting sense of undoubtedness about the world around you. I typically consider my knowledge of burners to be secure. I seem to know that if I touched the burner, I’d be burned. Surely, such a fundamental aspect of human life could not possibly be doubted. When we get hit by buses, we should feel pain. When we drop a pen, it should fall to the earth, for gravity should cause it to do so. It’s almost ludicrous to imagine that any one of these basic facts about human nature would be false, even if it were just for one real occurrence. Certainly, one could imagine a bus striking a man only to find that the bus was crushed at the man’s might. A folded metal tube lying pathetically at a confused man’s feet certainly isn’t an impossible thought, but we should know that such an occurrence could never take place in reality. There should be a certainty about such ludicrous ideas, for we should know that they will never occur. Buses should always hurt people, burners should always burn, and pens should always fall. Shouldn’t they?

Now, here’s the kicker, all three of the conclusions I just named aren’t reasonable. You can’t know that a bus will hurt when it hits a human, that a burner will burn a human, or that a pen will fall to the earth the next time it is dropped. You can’t know any such conclusions, should knowledge require certainty, because each conclusion is based on inductive reasoning.

How does one know that a pen will fall when dropped? Well, in all my prior experiences of a pen being released from my hand, the pen has fallen. Thus, the next time I drop a pen, it should fall. Gravity should always cause the pen to fall, but what does gravity look like? Can we experience gravity? Can we be certain of its existence? When I see a pen fall, I do not experience the gravity that causes it to do so. Rather, I see the pen being released from a hand, and I see the pen hitting the earth. I do not see, nor do I experience, the gravitational force that pulls the pen down. As a human, I am not under constant duress from the force of gravity. I do not feel bogged down by gravitational force, nor can I see, taste, smell, or hear it. One might assert that I’m experiencing gravity by not floating away into the distance, but there’s no experiential reason to assert that gravity keeps me grounded. Subatomic fairy princesses could be keeping me grounded, and that conclusion, if we trust our experiences alone, would be no less plausible than the gravity explanation. I cannot experience the subatomic fairies, nor can I experience gravity. One explanation merely appears more plausible than the other, but why? I assume that gravity exists, because it’s the best explanation as to why things fall when they’re dropped. There’s no sensation based justification of gravity. Rather, gravity is merely the best explanation for all of my previous experiences of pens falling, planes crashing, and planets orbiting.

Better yet, how can I know of any causal power? How can I know that the burner will be hot when it is turned on? Even more radical, how can I know that heat will always be hot? Heat is nothing more than the accelerated movement of particles, but I cannot see heat itself when I watch particles move quickly. I may be able to feel the heat radiated by the movement of the particles, but there’s no guarantee that the feeling will always remain the same. Nothing about the fast movement of particles dictates that they must cause me to feel a burning sensation, and nothing about a burner dictates that it must always burn the person that touches it next. If we can’t experience causal powers, like heat and gravity, then we can’t be certain that pens will always fall and burners will always burn. The only knowledge we have of such occurrences are formed through habituation. A potentially indefinite number of burners have been touched only to be followed by painful misery, but that does not mean the next burner touched will have the same effect. At any given moment, a pen could take off from a desk, a burner could freeze a human hand, or a bus could hit a human only to cause the human to morph into molten lava. If knowledge must be certain, then we may know nearly nothing.

Philosophers refers to this phenomenon as, “the Problem of Induction,” and it remains an unsolved riddle to this day. In all our wonderful endeavors to better ourselves and the world around us, it would be horrifying to think that the guiding entity of all our actions could so blasphemously assert its own rationality. How crazy, or how wonderful, it is to think that the mind may be the most mischievous entity of all. The thing you are meant to trust beyond all else may be the thing that deceives you most. Interesting, eh?

Welcome to the realm of philosophy.

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