How Do We Know Anything?
Most views we express concern matters of fact or opinion, and some of these can be tested. Science has a remarkably effective way to do this, and even those who aren’t trained research workers use it in any situation where they wish to find out what is actually the case in a situation, though perhaps less rigorously.
All claims of fact and much opinion concern descriptions of some aspect of the world, whether physical and biological phenomena like gravity and evolution, the vicissitudes and complexity of human behavioral and social processes, like politics, religion, or the practice of science itself.
These descriptions we use constitute models of a given system’s workings within it’s particular subset of reality, preferably formulated so that it is possible to take whatever model we use, place it up against a systematic observation of the larger reality it allegedly occurs in, and to see if model and reality are in agreement, and to what extent.
A word of warning: All models are imperfect, none so far are in absolute, complete and total agreement with the world, though the most reliable are also those that so far match it the closest at present.
But the imperfection of any given model is no strike against its truth. It’s merely a good reason to be humble about the current state of our knowledge, to concede that we cannot know something absolutely and totally, but that we CAN know it effectively, practically and reliably…
…as I’ve often said, like the success of quantum electrodynamics (QED) that led to the building of the computer servers hosting this blog, and the device you are using to read this post.
So long as it is useful in adding to our understanding by being as consistent with the observed world as can be managed, so long as it both explains and conforms to how things appear to be at any time, it is useful to treat it as though it were true until it is shown in the future to be inconsistent with observable facts by that same process of matching model vs the world using better methods, even the intricate world of human thought and interactions.
All observations, even the most seemingly simple, mundane and obvious have error bars; there is always a little inexactness in our measurements no matter the precision of our tools and instruments — it is not possible and has never been shown possible to measure anything with infinite precision, even our most advanced, accurate, finely made technology and our most painstaking scrutiny.
It’s something that seems to be built into the universe itself, not just because we aren’t all that clever.
The fact that science is so effective at matching ideas to reality is the non-secret of its success as a path to knowledge, and why it’s the best we have — so far — maybe one day something better will come along, though I’ve no idea what it will be like.
Prediction, sadly, is a lost art.
Whatever you think of “other ways of knowing” we get most of our knowledge from the senses, and though I can’t prove that Plato’s world of the Ideal Forms doesn’t exist, since it’s untestable it’s not a very useful concept — it’s problematic to match his model against reality and see if they fit, since his model includes our not having any direct sensory access to reality — so I’ll ignore it for now.
Even the most radically skeptical post-modernist unconsciously accepts the existence of a real world as a matter of practicality, regardless of what she’s said to fellow faculty and students in the Humanities department at her Uni.
After all, you can intellectually deny the objective existence of moving vehicles all you wish, but if you don’t look before crossing the street you will still be killed or injured just as easily and quickly when they hit you.
- The Philosophical Roots of Science Fiction [Open Channel] (io9.com)
- Life after the Higgs (economist.com)
- Scientific knowledge should trump “belief” (openparachute.wordpress.com)
Posted on Friday, 1:47, August 10, 2012, in General Science, Logic/Philosophy and tagged Alternative, Humanities, Philosophy, Physics, Plato, Reality, The Real World, Truth. Bookmark the permalink. 7 Comments.