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The Basis Of Knowledge

Matt Craighead

“Fix reason firmly in her seat, and call to her tribunal every fact, every opinion. Question with boldness even the existence of a God; because, if there is one, he must more approve of the homage of reason, than that of blindfolded fear.” - Thomas Jefferson

Universities, for all that they teach, do a remarkably poor job of explaining what knowledge is in the first place. Many students can’t answer questions such as, “what are the valid means of obtaining knowledge?” What constitutes certainty, or proof, of an idea and what degree of certainty is possible?

You might say, “I’m a scientist. I already know what knowledge is; that’s common sense! Just apply the scientific method.” But what is the scientific method, and why is it valid? And what constitutes common sense, after all? This attitude evades the question.

A pragmatist might say, “I’m an engineer. I don’t care for theoretical knowledge. I only need to learn the rules from my textbooks and apply them.” But this attitude rests on blind faith and can easily lead to disaster. The consequences of these attitudes often take on unexpected and frightening forms. For example, you might think that if X and Y are different locations, “object A is at location X” and “object A is at location Y” cannot both be true. Yet some quantum physicists claim to have disproven this, pointing to specific experiments that, at first glance, might indicate as much.

When trying to explain this blatant contradiction, they rationalize to cover it up. A typical explanation would go, “When we say that “particle A is at location B,” we don’t really mean that there is a physical particle and that it’s at a real location. We’re only making statements about observations we’ve made, not trying to describe how things really are.”

If you hear claims like this, for your own sake, please flee in terror! This “explanation” severs the link between knowledge and reality, making knowledge pointless and reality unknowable. (The solution, of course, is to recognize that a particle can only be at one location, and to look into alternative theories of quantum mechanics. If you’re interested, I’d recommend you start by looking into Bohmian mechanics.)

So what’s the right way to approach knowledge? This is not a branch of science as such; it is epistemology, the philosophy of knowledge. Philosophy is the most fundamental field of knowledge, and it must provide answers to the most basic questions.

Knowledge does not exist in a vacuum. Knowledge is knowledge of something, by someone. There is nothing to know about something that does not exist. Likewise, only a conscious being can know anything. So, the dichotomy between “theoretical” and “practical” knowledge is a false one. All valid knowledge must be practical, i.e., it must relate to real things, and it must be theoretical, i.e., it must relate to concepts.

So, to understand knowledge, we must understand three related ideas: consciousness, perception, and concepts.

Many philosophers either completely deny consciousness, or pretend that there is only consciousness, i.e., there is no reality. Both of these schools of thought, the “materialists” and “idealists,” are wrong.

Instead, we must start before anything else with the recognition that “there is something that I am aware of.” That is, something exists (existence) and you are aware of it (consciousness). It’s a something, not a nothing or an anything; so it has a specific nature, or identity.

Aristotle’s Law of Identity expresses the idea best. “A is A”: a thing is what it is.

From this follows the Law of Non-Contradiction: A cannot be non-A, no matter how we wish it to be so. These are the most basic laws of logic, which everything must obey. (Quantum mechanics needs a good dose of the Law of Non-Contradiction.)

Note also that consciousness is perceptive in nature. It does not create or change existence; it merely observes it. Likewise, the only path to knowledge is perception; our senses are our only link to reality.

Feelings, by themselves, tell us nothing about the external world; they are only physical responses to one’s knowledge and values. So emotions, while useful, can never substitute for rational analysis.

We do not innately recognize natural order. Instead, we must learn all of the different categories of things that exist. These categories or generalizations about the world are concepts. We derive concepts not by postulating arbitrary definitions, but by observing entities and drawing universal abstractions. Consider the concept “length.” There is no physical object that we can point to and say, “this is length.” On the other hand, length is not an arbitrary postulate; it is a real idea, with physical referents. Concepts are neither subjective nor arbitrary, nor predetermined nor innate; they are objective ideas about our world.

Knowledge must be integrated to be useful. Non-contradiction is an absolute, and it applies to everything.

So, each new fact that you learn must not contradict anything you already know. Always think about how new ideas fit together with old ones. Sometimes, you may need to revise your previous knowledge, or correct errors in it.

Integration pops up in many different contexts. For instance, many scientists who would normally tell you to never take anything on faith (always a good rule of thumb) drop that rule with religion; they justify the existence of God with faith. But everything is interconnected, and things are either true or false; either faith is an accurate guide to reality, or it is not. Science and religion are incompatible at their core.

Many people who would never use their feelings alone to decide what is true or false (also a good idea) will turn around and declare that there are no objective true and false in ethics, only opinion and feeling. Again, this is a contradiction. Either reason is valid, or our feelings, but not both. Statements are objectively true or false, or they are not. Unfortunately, most people give up and assume that there is no scientific approach to ethics, when in fact only a scientific approach can ever work.

Man is capable of knowledge but only through reason, never faith or feeling. Knowledge is no parlor game; it’s essential to human life. Contradictions do not and cannot exist; A is A. Integrate these ideas into your life; you have everything to gain, and nothing to lose, by living a life of reason.