Are there any things we can know absolutely?

2009 November 30

Every time you go to sleep the events in the world continue without you. Upon awakening you find the world different than it was when you went to sleep. Events great and small have changed the world, your world: the sun and stars have seemed to rotate in their orbits, plants and animals have grown and eaten and moved around. Peoples all around the world have been awake and making changes and acting upon their concerns and desires. Disasters or wars may have occurred and changed the lives of those around you and perhaps your own.

Even within your own body without your attention or effort, your body has digested your last meal, repaired any damages to its internal organs (provided you slept long and well enough), and your mind has dreamt of who knows what.

What can we know for sure? How certain can our knowledge be? How much should we trust what we know or think we know? In what knowledge can we have reasonable, or absolute, confidence (or at least as much as can be had in this universe)? Is it reasonable to believe that we could be deluded about reality and if we did so, what would that get us? Would it help make our lives better in any way?

WHAT DO WE MEAN WHEN WE TALK ABOUT THESE THINGS?

What does it mean to Know, to be Real, to Exist, or to be True? As a set of pragmatic definitions I would argue for the following:

1) What we Know is what we can reproduce mentally in a usable way in our minds. By ‘usable’ I mean we are able to use what we know to change our behavior (even if that is merely expressing the stuff we know in language). There is only a tenuous connection between what we Know and what is demonstrably True. We ought to seek some external evidence before declaring something to be True.

2) What is Real is what ever has (or can have) an effect upon the Existing world or your life,  physically or psychologically.

3) What Exists is what has physical effects or presence.  The number ‘2’ is Real but has no Existence tho a statue of iron in the shape of the number would have Existence.

4) What is True is that which is in concord with the way that the universe actually is. Only to the extent that we are able to ascertain the way the universe is can we compare this to the belief or knowledge we wish to test. To the extent that there is a match we must, at least provisionally, declare the belief to be True. As we and others continue to test what we Know and it proves both reproducible and aligned with (hopefully accurate) observations of Nature (all or part of the universe ) then we can be ever more certain that our knowledge is True, at least in part.

WHAT CAN WE KNOW TO BE REAL?

I would assert that there are at least three things we can Know are absolutely Real (though whether they are True or not remains open to question):

1) Imaginary things and concepts: these seem to exist at the root of our knowing in that we have to imagine the world and put all the separate things we have perceived about it together in our imagination to feel that we know what it is. So any imaginary thing we include or invent feels absolutely real. Unfortunately it feels real even if it is not and requires a forceful disconfirmation to remove it from our mental models. But our knowing of them is as absolute as any thing can be.

2) Mathematical patterns: Mathematics professor and author Rudy Rucker has said that “Mathematics is the study of pure pattern”. What that means is that we humans have invented a set of symbols to describe patterns that seem basic to nature and to existence. These begin with One (1) our name for a single isolated thing in and of itself. Zero (0) absence of a thing. Negative one (-1) debt or something missing. Then we can continue with names for  multiples of a thing: two (2), three (3) etc. in positive or negative directions. We can also describe parts in terms of fractions: half (1/2) a third (1/3) etc. These all started as we organized our sensory experiences, but soon the realm of numbers begin to show patterns in themselves- many of which we subsequently find in the world but many more seem confined to the realm of numbers. And yet all these seem real because anyone who learns the symbols can come to the same conclusions about the patterns. This verification between what we think we know and what another person (or sentient being) can tell us they know is one of the few tools we have to verify that we are not just believing in fantasies.

3) Perhaps our Fundamental Perceptual Bias is that there is some kind of external world and that we the perceiver are somehow separate. The self (the ‘I’) is everything seemingly under personal control; the world is everything else including most of your body most of the time.

Some evidence for this is a fact that we all can experience if we pay enough attention: that when we sleep the world undergoes changes unbidden by us and in a more or less predictable and coherent way. You scarcely can shape them and only most generally predict them with any warranted  certainty but they happen; every event from the sunrise to the digestion of the meal the evening before. This suggests that you and the world are separate.

And yet your body is embedded within the world as you perceive it. And you can (apparently) make changes to the world either in the choice of where to place your attentions, or what voluntary actions to initiate (or refuse). These can lead to changes in the (apparently) external world which are more or less permanent depending upon the lifespan of the phenomena in question — from throwing a pebble into a pond (where the ripples are short lived), to throwing a baseball thru a window (where the effects are permanent).

HOW CAN WE TEST WHAT WE (THINK THAT WE) KNOW?

We have discovered a method to carefully test what we think we know about the universe, we have come to call it the ‘Scientific Method’. Through precise activity and careful observations  we try to express as succinctly as possible, in some symbolic language, our observations (along with how we created or found the situation and our procedures for observation of the results). These can be understood by our fellow humans and they can conduct the same activity and make observations in the same conditions. Then they express their agreement with, or objection(s) to, our conclusions about what we observed. This is the essence of a properly done scientific experiment.

Either way this is evidence that there is a real enough external world and if both sets of observations are in agreement then that is evidence some degree of ‘absolute’ Truth in the expressed observations. At least the truth so expressed is likely to be as close to TRUTH as we are ever likely to get.

HOW DO WE KNOW THAT WE ARE NOT JUST INVENTING OUR KNOWLEDGE?

If the world is Real then your subjective experience is likely to be Real as well, though what you KNOW could be incorrect and you must test it with the tools at your disposal, i.e. your reason, logic and judgement. Even using the scientific method you must be careful not to lie to yourself or to allow your wishful thinking or desire to color your observations. It would do us all well to remember the advice of physicist Richard Feynman: “…you are the easiest person [for yourself]  to fool.” This is why the essence of the method is verification by the observations of others who are trying to reproduce your actions but disprove your conclusions. If they can’t then maybe it is OK for you to believe your conclusions are reasonable.

WHAT IF EVERYTHING WE EXPERIENCE IS AN ILLUSION?

If our sensory observations are but illusory then we are never likely to be able to get far enough separation from them to be able to ascertain that fact (if it indeed were a fact) so such discussion, far from being about anything absolute is simply idle speculation or else the stuff of fantasy (or nightmares) whose place is in fictions that entertain and amuse.

If you believe in imaginary ideas they will most likely  be of little use and eventually will prove false or empty. At least with sensory data that has some mutual verification it is more likely that these will remain true evidence and be able to support your manipulations and bring about change to the REAL world, perhaps even changes that are closer to what you thought or wanted.

-ccc- SJ Levy (inspired by a Seattle Socrates Cafe discussion about “Are there any Absolutes?” on Oct 28, 2009).

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