On knowledge, theory and the unknowable

Josh asked:

What, beyond knowledge itself, may be known or validated, under any hypothetical circumstances?

An inanimate object existing outside of all conception, objectivity claims, can and does exist. Yet through what means? Supposing that there isn’t an omnipresent, omniscient God, such an object is considered existent; if nobody is looking upon a certain dining table, we do not speak with each other openly that it does not exist. Of course it will be there when we turn around, we say, as experience has taught us, and furthermore, of course that must mean that it is there now. You should be able to think of many hypothetical situations in which this assumption is flawed, but rather than asking ‘Can it not be there now?’, perhaps we should ask ‘Can it be there now?’. For what authority determines the existence of an inanimate object outside of all conception?

I have not resolved this question, and as such I am of the opinion that we are led astray by the natural equation of conception with physical actuality. What is the difference between assuming there is a car behind you, because you just parked it and are walking away from it, and imagining a series of events, such as those in Star Wars, and actually believing in them? Or even believing in other minds, for that matter; an assumption due to the emotion of empathy, i.e. the process of analogy of apparent experience. We are also capable of feeling empathy for objects and simulations; how do we jump from observation of weeping matter to the assumption that there is a mind that embodies that matter and is currently under some torment? Even in practice, we may only understand others through analogy, which often leads to misunderstanding (which isn’t always obvious either!). Hence why we empathise much less with more alien life forms, such as insects and plants.

And so, as I have asked many, many times before: How do we justify the presumption of true knowledge of the literally unknowable?

Answer by Jürgen Lawrenz

This is really difficult, because the first answer that has to be given is this: that as human beings we are ensouled creatures and we have a mind. And both of these together engender prejudices and presumptions based on our need to have enough knowledge to survive as bodies.

But if we are to ensure that we do possess this knowledge, the first criterion is that individual knowledge is just a tiny stone in a big kaleidoscope. The central concept here is collective knowledge. What we know is the result of pooling knowledge, teaching it, checking it, verifying. So, most of our knowledge is consensual. You know that ‘X’ exists, because everybody does. What I don’t know, someone else will know. Therefore in principle, what one person knows, everybody can know, because we all have the same equipment for gathering and evaluating and learning knowledge.

But stringently regarded this applies only to factual knowledge. We can turn this knowledge into science, technology, laws and socially useful practices. On the strength of our capacity for extrapolating the order which is implied in this knowledge, there are features beyond our immediate capacity to detect them, which we are entitled to hold as either possible or true. This is the basis of our exploratory drive. We discover and invent things, because we can perform these projections of existence from known states of affairs upon unknown states of affairs.

This reflects to some extent the division Kant made between phenomena and noumena. As rational creatures we are enabled to gather all phenomena, including those which we know nothing about (but may at some time discover), and put them in one basket as ‘existents’. E.g. until 1877 we knew nothing about the planet Neptune, but certain planetary phenomena pointed to the existence of an unknown planet whose energy influenced the wobbles in the orbits of known planets and it was duly discovered. The problem now arise that this can give birth to an attitude that we need not stop anywhere with this presumption. Being able to convert some data into presumed phenomena (e.g. the energy waves from Neptune could for some time only be rendered as mathematical patterns), we now assume that we can make mathematical models and ‘discover’ things that do not convey actual energy patterns – such as the ‘big bang’. Here we run into a discrepancy between observation and imagination. We can do no more than presume that the phenomenal aspects of the universe continue infinitely, and we certainly cannot prove it. All we can prove is that, by a rational performance, such existents may be possible. They are, to this extent, noumena – ‘creatures of the mind’.

When we teach this, especially to people without the relevant training and experience, they have no choice other than to put their trust in the speculations of people who do this work. That presumption is, that the world is altogether as we can experience it, in other words, phenomenal and therefore material. But you and I know very well that some things which we know indubitably to exist, cannot be measured. You mentioned ’empathy’. There is no device by which we can measure it; and in fact no way by which we turn it into a mathematical model. These issues are apt to plunge us into big problems.

They suggest to us, that a belief (or faith) in non-physical existents is an ‘irrational’ attitude. On the one hand, we therefore continue with our effort to explain them indirectly, e.g. ‘the mind’ is nowadays often explained away as a sort of chemical interaction occurring in the brain. If only we had enough knowledge of the work of neurons, we could make a physical model of the mind. This may be a delusion; at least it is misplaced confidence.

From here we can go on to ask a really fundamental question: if there is no intelligence in the universe at all, but the universe exists as it does, who is there to vouchsafe its existence? Anyone who points at the discernible history of the universe is making the same point, though unawares: that consciousness lights up the universe and raises it into existence. So existence is not a word that has an objective meaning. It postulates that ‘I exist’ and ‘this fork exists’ and then, by peering through a telescope, I can say ‘Mars exists’. It is a logical conclusion from this that, if I (deputising for all living creatures in the world) cannot say ‘I exist’ — because there is no life — then existence is a nullity.

This is where God comes in; but I refrain from enlarging on it. We are not debating faith here, but knowledge.

In sum: knowledge is not an absolute. Even though there is a science/philosophy called epistemology, this is little more than pumping up the human intellect on the model of God. Nearly all absolute demands on us are made by people who (pretend to) forget that we are mere creatures. If Kant is right — and I think he is — then the sum total of our knowledge is what phenomena deliver to us. By the same token it is not irrational to believe there is more to the world than empty space irregularly interrupted by a few million galaxies and their dirt. Life itself has never been satisfactorily explained. On this and many other (quite important) issues, our knowledge would not bring a thimble to overflowing. It’s worth bearing this in mind. This is one tiny planet in an immensely vast cosmos. True knowledge is a rare and precious acquisition. It is a human foible to try and stretch it well beyond what can be reasonably accepted. Instead we should learn to value what we can know, and not dabble as much as have done, and still do, in uncertain domains for answers.


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