As you can tell from the name of my blog, I believe that truth is a very difficult thing to find. A quote attributed to Socrates comes to mind here:
True wisdom comes to each of us when we realize how little we understand about life, ourselves, and the world around us.
Read more at http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/authors/s/socrates.html#UyTtsg7it713yBWS.99
I’ve always been able to relate to that quote, and it seems that the older I get and the more that I learn, then the amount of things I realize that I don’t know grows much faster.
The fact is we are all human after all, and that entails that we realize that we are all capable of mistakes. While some things may seem incredibly obvious to us that does not mean they are correct. After all it wasn’t until the 3rd century BC that anyone even suggested that the earth revolved around the sun, and even then it was broadly rejected. This is just one of many examples of something that seemed so obvious to everyone on earth that an objection would have been laughable, but ended up being incorrect.
Once we acknowledge that we are all capable of being wrong then it seems to logically follow that we cannot truly know anything with 100% certainty. I always enjoy the sarcastic response that this always elicits: “well if that’s true then how do you know that with certainty?” I suppose my response is that we can’t be certain about that either – which would then imply that it is possible that we can know something with 100% certainty. But that all sounds very paradoxical to me. But I don’t care to waste too much time on delving deeper into paradoxes (although it would be interesting) – my main point here is that my starting point in my epistemology is the realization of our humanity and that we are very capable of being wrong of even the most basic things which might seem very obvious.
This is not the only problem we deal with in seeking after understanding reality. We also deal with the fact that we must rely on the expertise of others in many fields. For example, an engineer like myself has to rely on doctors for medical issues, and lawyers on legal issues, and so on, because I simply don’t have the education on those subjects like they do. But if we need to rely on others then we need to learn who to trust, and that is very difficult to do especially since there are so many differing opinions in fields such as these.
Another good question would be: “if you believe truth is so elusive then why even talk about it at all?” A couple of points to respond to that:
- The first is that we still must live our lives, and there is a practical sense in that even though we may not have complete certainty, and even though truth is very elusive we still need to figure out a way to live our lives.
- Another very important response here is that even if truth is very elusive that shouldn’t stop us from attempting to find it. Our lives today are much more improved than life was thousands of years ago because people sought out to understand our world better, and while there might be philosophers who would try to argue that all of that is just an illusion, it surely does not feel like one and you’d be hard pressed to find reasonable people who would question that the more we try and seek after and understand reality the better our lives can become. While this is not a 100% proof, I believe it is a fair enough reasoning to build an epistemology upon.
Another important thing to think about is that some fields of knowledge are more elusive than others. Mathematics and logic for example has conclusions that can be made with a feeling of great certainty. While there are debates about the ontology of math and numbers which would leave most people feeling queasy, the fact is that as long as we go along with the underlying definitions of what numbers are then we truly can come to a great deal of solid conclusions. I view the field of deductive reasoning (logic) in the same way. And it seems to me that there is a huge varying range of elusiveness to all different fields. The findings of physics while not as thoroughly certain as math can be quite conclusive because we are able to test the conclusions out real-time and over and over again. The medical fields become a bit more elusive because there are limits (for good reasons) to the kind of tests we can perform. Conclusions within fields such as anthropology and history are much more elusive – while we can still use reasoning and evidence and even some testing to a certain extent to form conclusions, we cannot test them in the same way that we can test things in biology and physics. And finally at the end of the spectrum are fields such as philosophy, religion, and politics. And the masters of spin have taken advantage of this elusiveness.