How do I know I know what I know?

Most of what I say I know is actually what I only believe I know. It is only what I know by my own experience or reasoning or argument or calculation that has a higher status  – in my mind – than a belief. When I say I know the Earth is an oblate spheroid, it is not from my own experience but from that of others who I believe. In reality I believe I know that the Earth is an oblate spheroid. All that I know that is within my own experience is – at least in my own mind – a higher level of knowing than all that I believe I know from the experience of others.

It has always been a little, irritating niggle at the back of my brain that I can never know that what I interpret and experience as red in my mind may be what somebody else experiences in the same way as I experience brown. What I can communicate with another person are the labels red or brown. My brain has no other means of communicating what I experience as red except by the labels that language allows. What exactly does knowing mean? 

When a tree falls in a forest and there is nobody to hear, there is no sound.

A sound is an interpretation by a brain of electrical signals generated by an organ for the detection of pressure fluctuations (vibrations) in air. When the tree falls it generates air pressure fluctuations. If there is no ear to detect the signals, there is no sound. If a deaf person is in the forest there are vibrations but there is no sound. If the vibrations are detected, but there is no brain to interpret the signals, there is no sound. A recording device detects air vibrations and converts them into something else which can be stored. The stored signals can later be used to reproduce those air vibrations through another device, which can then be interpreted as sound by a brain which has an ear to hear. But the recording device does not detect or record sound. A tape recording replayed on the moon’s surface has no atmosphere to vibrate and would create no sound, even if an intrepid astronaut with both an ear and a brain was standing next to it. Sound is in the brain and is both enabled and constrained by the physical capabilities of the hearing organ connected to that brain. The same pressure fluctuations may generate different interpretations of sound in different human brains. Cacophony to me is what is called modern music by others. The connection between the human ear and the human brain are similar to, but not the same as, the connection between a canine ear and a canine brain. My inability to fully appreciate a wolf’s howl is the same type of inability as of a wolf listening to Beethoven. Who knows what the other hears?

Sound is a cognitive thing. It is of the brain and necessarily subjective. 

And so it is with knowing. To know is a cognitive thing. It is of the brain and necessarily subjective.

My best, considered definition of knowledge goes like this: Knowledge is anything and everything, but only those things, that a brain can comprehend to be knowledge

This is a somewhat circular definition and is a little unsatisfactory because it does not say very much more than that knowledge is what knowledge is. But it is still the best that all our 10,000 years of philosophy and metaphysics has been able to come up with. Knowledge and knowing are not quite the same thing. As a noun knowledge is difficult enough but as a verb, to know is even more elusive. Knowing in philosophy is generally classified into three kinds of knowing:

  1. Knowing that – some proposition is true,
  2. Knowing how – to do something, and
  3. Knowing by acquaintance – by personal experience

I note that I cannot share my knowing. I can share a piece of knowledge (and that encompasses whatever my brain tells me I know) but another brain has to judge for itself whether it knows that piece of knowledge. How does my brain know that it knows? How do I know if what I know is true? Ultimately it seems to come down to what my brain believes that it knows and what it believes to be true.

The whole branch of epistemology is concerned mainly with the first kind of knowing where a brain knows that some proposition is true.  Knowing cannot, in itself, be conflated with being true. Many people once knew that the earth was flat. A brain may know what it knows but that knowing does not confer truth. Any such knowing is, no doubt, a piece of knowledge for that brain. Even if a certain knowing (say that the earth was flat) is shared by multitudes of people, that multiplicity of knowing is no less subjective and carries no greater truth value. Any brain may know many things which are, in fact, false. Many brains, because they are so similar, may know the same false things. The fact of knowing does not carry a truth-value, but it does carry a belief of truth for that particular brain. And that leads me to conclude that no truth can exist except as a subjective belief in a brain.

Knowing and truth are both subjective. They are both beliefs.

I had forgotten that I had written this about belief a few years ago:

Primordial Belief:

Most of what we therefore consider to be “our” knowledge is actually somebody else’s knowledge and not “known” to ourselves. However our belief in these persons leads to us claiming that knowledge as our own as being part of the body of knowledge available to humanity. The longer some statement has been within the body of knowledge, the stronger is our belief in that statement. Most of our actions are based then, not on our own personal knowledge, but on the belief that whatever lies within the body of knowledge of humanity is true.

But it strikes me that there is an assumption, a belief, which underlies every thought, every perception. This “primordial belief” is in fact implicit in every living thing. In fact it is so intrinsically intertwined with life that it may well be a part of the definition of what life is. This “primordial belief” is that the flow of time is unhindered and that a future exists. I breathe because there is future to breathe for. I cannot know when I take a breath that there will not be another one. Every living thing – a cell, a microbe, a virus, a tree or a human –  does what it does because there is a future (explicitly or implicitly) it believes it can live in. Even the very last breath I take will be taken in the belief that there will be another one to come. A belief in my future is existential.

A belief in a future is inherent in life. There can be a future without life (and there probably will be), but there is no form of life which does not have an implicit belief in its own future.

So every conscious mind (and that includes atheists, agnostics, religious fanatics, scientists and even economists) has this primordial, fundamental belief that a future exists. That, that future exists, can not be within the space of knowledge. All religions exist in the space of ignorance. But long before any of the “beliefs” they adopt comes the primordial belief that every living thing has  – that it has a future.


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One Response to “How do I know I know what I know?”

  1. bjornthundal Says:

    Truth can not be told, truth cannot be tranferred, truth cannot be learnt. Truth can experienced , if in accordance with your heart.

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