Question about truth and knowledge

Viola asked:

If you cannot be certain on what the truth is, based on experience, can you know anything at all?

Answer by Jürgen Lawrenz

If you wish to do things philosophically, the first rule is: be careful that you actually know what kind of a question you are asking!

If were to ask a computer this question, you’ll find ‘it does not compute’. You’ve not specified precisely what your notions of ‘truth’ and ‘experience’ are.

Philosophy is no different. The answer you receive depends on whom you ask. You can’t expect that everyone knows what’s on your mind when you write those words!

Now we use the word ‘truth’ quite casually every day, and usually we mean the truth of some fact, of which the opposite is misinformation or lies. But this is easily resolved, and a computer can do it too.

But maybe you want something ‘deeper’? The truth of your soul, or scientific proof, or even God’s truth?

Then the question can be answered, at least provisionally.

A scientific proof is grounded in experience, i.e. a theory and experimentation. The outcome of this is usually some form of exact knowledge. But soul and God are beyond us; on these issues we have only the choice between guessing and trusting revelation.

In short: we humans have no other actual access to truth than what our collective experience over many generations conveys to us. But this is not ‘truth in itself’ – it is the sum of judgements made on many disparate kinds of circumstances in which our forefathers and we discern something that may strike us as ‘truth’.

Truth itself cannot be experienced. There is no such thing out there in the world. But you can have an experience that results in some condition that you feel is either truthful or not. So judgement must resolve it. If someone steals your car and is known to be a thief, you will say, ‘it’s in character’. You mean, that’s a truth about that person. But it may change. A thief may get sick of being jailed and stop stealing. Then this former ‘truth’ will turn into something else.

Many truths, especially the ‘higher’ truths, are mere prejudices. They are not based on experience, but on some person claiming to be in possession of some truth, even ‘The’ truth, and inviting or forcing other people to believe it. This is very common, today as it has always been in history.

So to return to your question: It is not a question to which a cut-and-dried answer can be given. The words ‘truth’ and ‘experience’ are welded together in the sense that no truth can be known unless there is an experience behind it, that has been evaluated by a human judgement.

Now this has no effect on the other part of your question, ‘how can we know anything at all?’ All living creatures, including those which can’t think, must evaluate information in order to survive. That’s their truth. Accordingly it is knowledge. If you get it wrong, you become extinct. So survival is the great teacher of knowledge.

We humans have a lot more knowledge than worms, but some of this may not be survival truths, but survival dangers (e.g. nuclear power). So you see, that ‘truth’ is an inherently ambiguous term, because it can mean so many things to many people, and they may all disagree with each other. But as I said, having knowledge has virtually nothing to do with truth. Truth only becomes important when you use this knowledge to act. Then you will find out, in the long or the short run, whether your ‘truth’ is truth or not.

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