How Do You Know if You Know Anything?

truthHow do you know if you know anything?  You have two paths to answer this question.  The first path involves your belief that you do know something.  You can choose this path if you are fairly certain that you know something.  It may surprise you, but this is not a path of science.  This is a Faith-Based path.  No matter what anyone tells you, science relies on faith almost as much as religion relies on faith.

Consider the Heisenberg Principle of Uncertainty and Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorems.  Both theories show that ultimately, we can never be certain of anything, and that the fundamental bedrock of even science must then be a degree of faith.  Formulated by Werner Heisenberg, Nobel Prize winning physicist in 1927, the Uncertainty Principle states that we cannot know both the position and speed of a particle, such as a photon or electron, with perfect accuracy; the more we nail down the particle’s position, the less we know about its speed and vice versa. 

Godel’s first incompleteness theorem states that “No consistent system of axioms whose theorems can be listed by an effective procedure (i.e., an algorithm) is capable of proving all truths about the arithmetic of natural numbers.  For any such consistent formal system, there will always be statements about natural numbers that are true, but that are unprovable within the system.  The second incompleteness theorem, an extension of the first, shows that the system cannot demonstrate its own consistency.” — Wikipedia

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Let me provide a simple example of what these theories tell us.  For instance, you may say, “I know the earth is round.”  I challenge you to prove this.  The only way that you can prove it is by relying or trusting on the wisdom of experts who say that the earth is round.  Even if you have a picture of the round earth, how do you know that it is real?  In essence, you are relying on faith.  It is your faith in someone you trust whom you believe has more knowledge than you do.  You cannot prove the earth is round so your belief is based on faith.  This explains why climate change deniers are so difficult to argue with.  They refuse to accept any evidence from experts on climate whom they disagree with.  Instead, they find the inevitable expert who disagrees with many other scientists.  Most of us have faith in the majority.  But history has countless examples of where the majority were wrong. 

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The second path you can take is what I call the Path of the Atheist.  In this path, you accept what Socrates did that you know nothing.  Socrates was called the wisest man in the world because he believed that “I know that I know nothing.”  The atheist does not believe anything unless it can be proved to them personally.  Since it is impossible that anyone can ever prove anything to you beyond a shadow of a doubt, you must conclude that knowledge (like God) is impossible to know or prove.  The atheist concludes that all possibility of ever conclusively proving anything is impossible.  Thus no one can really know anything. 

The Path of the Atheist diverges from the Faith Based path since with faith we believe things.  We believe that there are facts and there is an ultimate truth.  Even if we cannot find them ourselves.   The scientist’s belief is tempered by realistic probabilities based on experiments and history.  The Path of the Atheist does not believe that there is any ultimate truth.  Truth is only a process that gets us closer to some approximation that we are finally willing to settle for.  The Atheist says, “Show me an ultimate truth that is unvarying and that you can prove will be forever true.”  You might argue that the sun will come up tomorrow, but you only have history to rely on for this.  The dinosaurs might have believed that they would live forever but all it took was one large asteroid to wipe out millions of years of evolution. 

As we go through life, we sometimes choose one path and sometimes the other.  Given whatever circumstances we are confronted with, we select the path that provides the most comfort and certainty for us.  Even the Path of the Atheist is comforting since the atheist does not expect any irrefutable truth.  This gives the atheist the ability to ignore whatever fads and foibles society is following in search of a truth that does not exist, or at least for the atheist does not exist.   

truth as factual

What is the meaning of all this?  Are we arguing about how many angels can dance on the head of the pin?  Are we engaging in the same logic that Bishop Berkeley did.  A man who denied that there is a reality of matter apart from what the mind perceived.  Some philosophers have argued that we cannot prove or ever know if we are living or dreaming.  I would guess that most of you reading this blog persist in the idea that you are truly alive and not dreaming now. 

What then is the value of discussing truth?  In this age of misinformation, disinformation, false facts, and fake news, it is a matter that we all need to take more seriously.  For generations and centuries, humans have searched for the truth.  We are told that the “Truth will set us free” and that truth is a value even more important than honesty.  But as Sara Gran said ““Most people wouldn’t know the truth if it bit them in the ass and paid for the privilege.”  Could it be that to paraphrase Colonel Nathan R. Jessup in a “Few Good Men”, “You don’t want the truth because you can’t handle the truth.” 

truth will set you free

Truth is a great deal more complicated than we realize.  It is one of those “holy grails” which if we find may give us eternal life.  Problem is that no one has found either the Holy Grail or the Truth.  It is said that you have your truth and I have my truth.  Dr. Deming, an expert on quality insisted that nothing could be accomplished without an operational definition of any concept that was going to be studied.  He said “An operational definition is a procedure agreed upon for translation of a concept into measurement of some kind.”   The science of an operational definition lay in the measurement of the concept but the starting point for measurement lay in the agreement between two “reasonable” people as to what measurement procedure would be used.  Without an agreement there was no starting or ending point. 

We may meet someone on the street or at a party or it may be a friend or relative and they advance some theory or ideas which contradicts the facts as we know them.  A popular controversy these days among some is whether Trump really won the election and if it was not stolen from him.  If you believe it was stolen, you will have a set of ideas about what constitutes a “fair” election. 

trumpThe Faith Based Path could lead one to accept that hundreds of systems across America could not all have been wrong and that the tallies were accurate because someone you trust told you they were.  If you do not trust the poll counters, you will reject the decisions made by election boards and cling to the idea that Trump was cheated by liars and scoundrels.  Either way it is a matter of faith.

If you follow the Path of the Atheist, you may reject the vote tallies because you do not believe any voting procedure could be foolproof.  You accept that there is error in any system and the deciding factor for you lies in the degree of error that you are willing to accept.  Given your proclivity to accept a certain amount of error, you will either accept of reject any election results based on the voting tallies.

I chose the Faith Based path and accepted that fifty state election boards cannot all be wrong.  On the other hand, I followed the Path of the Atheist since I know that error exists in any procedure, and I do not trust that any election process can rule out all the errors in the system.  I accept the errors in life just as I accept the risk of dying on the road tomorrow when I drive someplace.  It is not a matter of faith; it is a matter of statistical probability.  Tallies like life will never be perfect.

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What do we do?  First stop looking for an ultimate truth.  Truth is like beauty and is in the eye of the beholder.  Second, ask others what they base their truth on.  See if you can come up with an operational definition for establishing truth that you are both willing to accept.  Third, agree on a way to measure the outcome of whatever you are measuring or looking at.  Accept that error will always exist and that predictability for any ultimate truth is near zero. 

The best we can achieve in life is a “useful” truth that we may find to make life easier and happier for all of us.    

 

27 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Wayne Woodman
    Dec 11, 2022 @ 20:41:19

    Thanks John for a very thoughfull article covering a very difficult range of ideas. This reminds me of a recent conversation with a nephew of mine who happens to be a “Christian”. We were at a family dinner and had agreed we would not discuss religion but of course we did and it devolved into the subject of “Faith’. As you can probably appreciate
    it did not go well so he left with a sour taste.

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    • Dr. John Persico Jr.
      Dec 12, 2022 @ 01:53:32

      Hi Wayne, I can see myself in the same situation. I probably could not resist the challenge. I have “lost” many relatives over the years who profess to be stout Christians. John

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    • jacobp81
      Dec 12, 2022 @ 21:24:47

      But would you be more inclined to believe that they are NOT going to attack? Are you an atheist? And do you think most atheists would find that they feel less threatened that they are carrying Bibles. This is an interesting thought experiment. It seems to me that most Christians would find there carrying of Bibles an indication that they are less likely to be violent, but would most atheists draw this conclusion? Certainly there is a lot of violence condoned in the Bible, but is someone carrying a Bible less apt to be an abuser statistically. I personal would be less apt to think that they would attack or steal from me. I would think “Hey they are all carrying Bibles! They most be part of some born again church group.” Realistically would some born again church group really be out to steal or assault. I would guess that even most atheists would share this bios. What would you say Uncle John?

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      • Dr. John Persico Jr.
        Dec 13, 2022 @ 09:43:01

        Jacob, Too many evangelicals carrying bibles supported Trump. I would be less likely to trust a bible carrying person than one without. Too many “fake” Christians in the world Jacob who say they follow the words of Jesus but advocate for violence towards others. Give me an atheist anytime since at least I know they are not hypocrites. Uncle John

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        • jacobp81
          Dec 13, 2022 @ 17:39:00

          Thank you Uncle John for your point of view on that hypothetical. I find it interesting that you look at it that way, and it surprises me that you would be more suspicious of them if they were carrying bibles.

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          • Dr. John Persico Jr.
            Dec 15, 2022 @ 09:59:21

            Jacob, I will send you a good book on the subject of Christianity which I think you will enjoy. It is full of lectures by a minister whom I admire. Uncle John

            Liked by 1 person

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  2. Majik
    Dec 12, 2022 @ 06:48:28

    Have you been reading my blog, Dr. J?
    It kinda sounds like you have. It’s all about stuff like this. If you haven’t, I invite you to do so. Dive right in . . . the Water’s fine! 😎

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    • Dr. John Persico Jr.
      Dec 12, 2022 @ 08:57:02

      Majik, I have read several. Maybe you are influencing my subconscious. I believe we get most of our ideas from others and then we season them to our own tastes. John

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      • Majik
        Dec 12, 2022 @ 12:15:17

        “All lies and jest . . . still a man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest.” 😎https://youtu.be/l3LFML_pxlY

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        • Dr. John Persico Jr.
          Dec 12, 2022 @ 18:17:20

          Great song. Very fitting. Thanks Majik, . I had a friend who helped write an autobiography for Simon. John

          Check out https://genius.com/Simon-and-garfunkel-the-boxer-lyrics

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          • Majik
            Dec 12, 2022 @ 19:19:27

            So glad that you “get” me, John, and didn’t take any unneeded offense when I quoted the line from “The Boxer.” Paul Simon could be singing about me as a young man in his great song, as well as himself, and maybe any young man trying to fight his way into manhood and not get the life beat out of him in the process. I didn’t realize how fitting the song was, however, until I read your link about the lyrics. It was just the stray line that wafted through my brain whilst conversing with you in these comments. But at the risk of repeating myself, I gotta tell ya “my Truth” once again . . . I never would have made it out alive without the help of my possibly imaginary Friend! 😉 https://thehappynarcissist.com/2022/10/24/i-believe-in-jesus-christ/

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            • Dr. John Persico Jr.
              Dec 13, 2022 @ 09:44:41

              Sometimes imaginary friends are the best ones Majik. I also find myself thinking of lines from songs and many of my blogs have been inspired by single lines that just kept resonating in my mind. John

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              • Majik
                Dec 15, 2022 @ 07:23:33

                To be completely accurate, Dr. J, and not meaning to sound pedantic, I only refer to Jesus Christ as my “POSSIBLY imaginary Friend” spelling “Friend” with a capital “F” to proclaim my faith in Him but including “possibly imaginary” out of respect for those who don’t yet have such faith. I’ve found that this description seems to annoy the hell out of everyone I know . . . believers and unbelievers alike!

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              • Dr. John Persico Jr.
                Dec 15, 2022 @ 09:57:35

                Faith or not, we all need friends and I once found a guru in my meditation that I could talk to. He helped me out quite a bit. Whether he existed or not, I would not swear to but perhaps inside all of us is a friend or friends who can help us out if we listen to them. IMHO. Have a Happy Holiday Majik or Merry Christmas is you prefer. John

                Liked by 1 person

              • Majik
                Dec 15, 2022 @ 11:52:32

                Amen to THAT, Friend! I count meeting you as one of my blessings from 2022. Happy Holidays, Merry Christmas, and Happy New Year A.D. 2023, Dr. J, to you and your beautiful bride, Karen, from mine and me!

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              • Dr. John Persico Jr.
                Dec 15, 2022 @ 15:26:18

                Thanks Majik, Happy Holiday and Merry Christmas to you as well. Every year, my hope is that the New Year will be even better than the old year but it is up to us. John

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    • Wayne Woodman
      Dec 15, 2022 @ 15:09:22

      John, could you tell us the book you reference, I would love to read it.
      Thanks.

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      • Dr. John Persico Jr.
        Dec 15, 2022 @ 15:24:53

        Wayne, I am reading
        “Spiritual Answers Today’s Questions: The Importance and Relevance of God in Today’s Society” By Revered Elvis Mitchell. Dont let the title turn your off, the essays are quite thought provoking. I think this is the book you mean? Or did I get it wrong? John

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  3. Wayne Woodman
    Dec 12, 2022 @ 08:29:53

    I think I may have lost this one also even though we have had many discussions over the years. We had been discussing biases and he came up with a scenario he had just read– your car breaks down as you’re driving through Harlem and immediately you become fearful but as you get out to check on your car you seen a group of black youth approaching with bibles in their hand. So the question then is how do feel knowing they have bibles. My immediate reaction is to ask how close would they have to be before you knew it was bibles they were carrying and would it make a difference if it korans instead? Then I get accused of trying to complicate the situation! At that point I made an observation that just because they were carrying bibles did not automatically make them non-violent which totally pissed him off and refused to discuss further!

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    • Dr. John Persico Jr.
      Dec 12, 2022 @ 08:55:29

      Wayne, that is a very funny story. It appears he was not willing to divorce the idea of Christianity from nonviolence. Something that seems rather hypocritical when we look at the history of Christianity. John

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  4. barryh
    Dec 12, 2022 @ 11:04:16

    Interesting post, John. I agree with your point about science and religion both being based on faith.
    I don’t really get your Path of the Atheist (a person who does not believe in the existence of a god); it sounds to me like the Path Of the Agnostic (who doesn’t know whether there is a god, or even if such a thing is knowable).
    Anyway, as you say, Deming always has something useful to say about practical matters!

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    • Dr. John Persico Jr.
      Dec 12, 2022 @ 18:24:00

      Barry, I guess I was thinking that most atheists are as sure of what they know as many religious people. So was Socrates an agnostic or an atheist? I tell people I am 75 percent atheist and 25 percent agnostic. Maybe, it should be the other way around. Each time I read this piece, I think there is something wrong with it. Maybe you have hit the nail on the head. I will let it settle for a while and then maybe rewrite or edit as my energy dictates. If so, you have provided a path that sounds good. Thanks, John

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  5. jacobp81
    Dec 12, 2022 @ 18:13:55

    Only one thing you are missing, logical impossibility. Two statements that controdict each other canont both be true.

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  6. Margaret
    Dec 17, 2022 @ 09:29:02

    I think your last paragraph sums it up perfectly John. Connectedness and continued communication is necessary to get close to ‘truth’.

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    • Dr. John Persico Jr.
      Dec 17, 2022 @ 13:27:17

      Yes exactly. Truth seeking is a process and we never really get to the end of it. IMHO. Thanks for clarifying. You have said it all in one sentence Margaret, John

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