August 17, 2008

As it is the aim of this blog to explore the extent of what we humans know about our universe, our world, and ourselves, I thought it would be appropriate to begin with a discussion about the nature of knowledge itself. Before we address how we know what we know, let us first ask how we know that we know what we know.

Bertrand Russell, Philosopher

Bertrand Russell, Philosopher

At the outset, it seems that there are three ways that one can gain knowledge of an event: first hand perception, written and verbal communication and logical deduction. In an effort to economize our discussion, we can ignore communication for the time being, as first hand perception of an event is a prerequisite for the communication of knowledge of that event. Similarly, in order to apply the rules of logic to the data that we gather from our surroundings, we must first gather that data. Thus we can say comfortably that all of our knowledge is based on the perceptions of individuals.

That said, it is often argued that the flaws inherent to individual perception negate any possibility of true empirical knowledge. If all of our knowledge and experience of the universe is the product of our senses, and our perceptions are nothing but chemical events in the brain, then isn’t it possible that the external world doesn’t exist anywhere but in our minds? Hallucinations, which to some degree are experienced by all people, are perceptual events with no stimuli external to the brain. Is it possible that the whole of human experience is a grand hallucination? I don’t think so.

First of all, that entire line of reasoning is founded solely on the cognitive sciences, which, in turn, are based entirely on perceptions and hence deemed unreliable by the very same line of reasoning. Therefore, the hypothesis cannot support itself.
If followed to it’s logical end, this system of thought seems to deny the existence of matter, energy, space, time and the forces of nature. After all, we can only become aware of these characteristics of the universe through our senses. This leaves us not only with no stimuli for our brains to perceive, but also with no brains to perceive them with.

The alternative is a more sensible, materialistic theory of cognition. If you are an average, healthy person you probably find that your five senses are generally in agreement. For instance, if you are standing on the side of the road at a bus stop and you see a bus approaching, you have probably come to expect to hear the engine of the bus as it gets closer and, as it stops next to you, you may even be able to smell the exhaust before you climb inside. The more our senses agree about a common phenomenon, the more confidence we ascribe to our assessment of that phenomenon.

Our senses provide information about matter and the way that it interacts with space and time, and we generally observe that similar configurations of matter and energy tend to behave in similar ways. This allows us to make predictions about how matter will behave in certain situations. For example every time I drop a rubber ball over a hard surface, the ball falls to the ground and bounces. We also apply this logic to other human beings when we assume that because they have similar sense organs to us, they must also be capable of providing accurate reports of their surroundings.

We live in a world of individual percepts, both those of our own and those of others that we become aware of through communication. This does not conclusively prove that there is no world beyond our perceptions. It does, however, mean that if such a world does exist than it is utterly beyond our reach and will remain, as it should, forever in our imaginations. We haven’t proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that our universe is not illusory, only that we may as well not doubt what we commonly call “reality”, because it’s the only reality we have.


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