Are You Sure?

the limits of "absolute" knowledge
So, what does it mean to "know" something? How can you tell that "red" is the same thing to you as it is to everyone else? Is that really air you're breathing? What if we're just characters in someone's dream?

Most people have questions like this at some point in their lives. Most people just ignore the question, and try not to think about it too much. "It makes my head hurt!" But what if you want to "know" when you know something?

I can't claim to be an expert on this, but nobody really is. Even professional philosophers have trouble with this sort of thing. But I've got some ideas about what it means to "know" something. Maybe they're even good ideas. You decide.

I've devised a test... determine whether you really "know" something or not. It's rather simple. Think of a statement. For now, let's use "my hand has 5 fingers". Simple enough. Now, try to think of any way the statement could possibly be false. Try to imagine a universe where the statement is different. For example, "my hand has 6 fingers". If it is possible for the statement to be false, then you don't really "know" it.

My five-finger example failed the test pretty easily. So, I don't really "know" that I have five fingers on each hand. Perhaps there are only three, and I'm imagining two of them. Not likely, but it's possible.

So far, I've only found two types of information which I can say I "know":
  • Self-defined Information
  • First Principles

Self-defined information... anything you control. Things such as "I like cheese", or "your smile makes me happy". These are things which are absolutely, completely, 100% true. There is no reason to doubt this sort of knowledge. You could even change your mind, and decide you hate cheese -- but what you "know" would still be true! This information is completely under your control, so you define its truth. I have a rather strict concept of "truth", so I find it especially comforting that I can tell someone "I love you" and know beyond a doubt that it is true.

Let me reiterate that.

You can know, beyond any doubt, that you love someone. You can know it is absolutely, completely, 100% true. And even more important, the truth of love is under your control, so don't screw it up! :)

First Principles...

...are the sorts of things many philosophers try to deal with. Descartes was perhaps the first to start from ground zero, square one. His most famous contribution to modern thought was a single, short phrase:
"I think, therefore I am."
We hear this so much that it has lost its meaning. But think about it. It's the most basic, fundamental piece of knowledge you could ever have. It's also one of the most important things you can ever learn. It means you exist. This seems trivial, but it's not.

No matter what else may happen, or what the universe might really be, you can always be sure of your own existence. Even if you're just part of someone else's dream, you still exist. Even if you really are a potato salad, but you don't know it, you can at least know you exist.

To answer some questions about this... Descartes' "Cogito ergo sum" is not a logical proof. It is a demonstration of its own conclusion. Existence is a prerequisite for the act of thinking, so by thinking, you demonstrate your existence. (for further discussion of this, please read the wikipedia entry linked above)

Descartes tried to build up from "I exist" to more complex and useful bits of information, but later philosophers have found holes in his arguments. It's extremely difficult to prove anything other than your own existence.


Logic is what we use for almost all philosophy. Everything assumes that logic is a valid and true concept. But is it?

I can't prove that logic is true. I can't disprove it either. Doing so, by standard means, would be a fallacy. You must assume logic is valid in order to make an argument to prove or disprove it, which would be using your conclusion as a premise. That's a Bad Thing(TM)(R).

There are basically three possibilities. Take the realm of Logical Possibility, and the realm of Actual Possibility. One of the following is probably true:
  • They are the same thing. Everything that is actually possible is also logically possible, and vice-versa. In this case, logic is a valid and true concept.
  • Logic is larger than reality. There may be things which are logically possible, but which could never actually happen. In this case, logic is a valid and true concept.
  • Existence is more vast than logic. Perhaps some things happen and some things exist which are logically impossible. Like a corner of the universe where two plus two really does equal five. In this case, logic is inadequate to base our philosophy on, because it does not encompass the entirety of existence. I have not yet met a philosopher who was willing to seriously consider this idea. (it would be rather inconvenient, because it would mean our methods for discussion are bunk)
I can't say which of those three is true. I believe, as do most people, that one of the first two is true. But, unlike most people, I recognize that option three may be true. So I can't say I know that logic is valid. It is, however, a pretty strong belief. Nobody has ever been able to disprove it or produce any evidence to the contrary.

The Question

I've found one other thing which seems to be true. I say this because I have never been able to think of a way in which it could be false. This is not a "logical" proof, but I consider it convincing nonetheless. Somewhere inbetween knowledge (something you cannot doubt) and a strong belief.

As far as I can tell, there exists some sort of "being" which we call "God". My reasoning is rather simple. There is a fundamental question everyone asks. "Why are we here?" "How did we get here?" "Where did the universe come from?" "Why does something exist?" All these questions are the same. I call it "The Question". Note the capital letters.

So, try to answer The Question in a way which doesn't involve God. Try hard. I don't think anyone can do it. Every answer is either incomplete, absurd, or cheating. More specifically, every answer I've ever found falls into one of the following categories:
  • "I don't know." (incomplete) This answer doesn't really "count". It's a cop-out. This basically translates to "I don't care enough to really try to figure it out." And that's a perfectly acceptable and healthy answer. Go outside and do something fun.
  • Scientific explanation X. (incomplete) These answers are interesting and valuable, but insufficient to explain why we're here. They provide an explanation to the immediate question of why we're here, but fail to answer the larger question of why anything exists at all. This deserves more attention, so I'll detail some examples below in the next section. However, this is also a healthy answer, and often produces innovations in technology which benefit the world.
  • Absurd answer X. (absurd) The Great Green Arklesiezure sneezed out the universe a long time ago during a picnic. These sort of answers either don't "count" or are simply a bizarre version of the God explanation. They can be a lot of fun, though.
  • God. (cheating) This explanation is what everyone eventually resorts to when the other answers fail. Now, before I go any further, I should make clear that I'm not talking about any of the gods defined in various religions. Throughout all of human history, we've been trying to explain existence. But nobody has ever succeeded. And it's likely that nobody ever will. So we create the concept of God, whose only necessary property is being "that which explains existence."

    This doesn't tell us much about god, though. It doesn't mean that any particular religion is correct. It merely defines god as something which answers The Question, because we have not been able to.
The main reason I think God is the most likely answer to The Question is that no other answer has been complete. We have been trying to find other answers, through science, which has led to all sorts of neat stuff, but for thousands of years has failed to actually produce a complete answer. And, since almost every scientific explanation in history was later proven wrong, I'm reluctant to attach any truth to scientific answers. So, why not just invent a new concept which produces an answer? It's cheating, but nothing else has worked.


In case you're wondering what I'm smoking, here's mini-FAQ for the common questions I get:
  • Q: "If God created everything, then who created God?"
    A: If you're asking this, you missed the point.

    The entire point of defining a concept to explain existence is to avoid that question. The "God" described above is nothing more than an idea defined specifically to answer The Question. We could call it something else, but it would still be the same thing: a cheater's way around the question. It is "that which answers The Question". Sound lame? It is. Got a better answer?
  • Q: "What if the universe has always existed? Doesn't that explain it?"
    A: No.

    Who cares if it's been around forever, or if it popped into existence yesterday at lunch time? Even if we could tell the difference, existence isn't a matter of when, but how. If you could go back in time forever and never get to the beginning, that still leaves the question of why/how time exists. The concept of forever does not explain existence, because time itself is a part of existence.

Now, about those scientific explanations...

I'll demonstrate why these answers fail, by example. Take the Big Bang theory. The universe exists because it exploded out of nowhere. Okay, I'll buy that. It's a pretty interesting and novel explanation, too. But it leaves another question behind it. Scientific explanations always lead to more questions. For the Big Bang, the next question is "Why and how did the universe explode from nowhere?"

So we try to answer that question. There are at least two answers at this point. One explanation says that the universe has been exploding and collapsing repeatedly for a long time. It collapses into a single super-particle, and explodes into a new universe.

The other explanation is that particles appear and disappear from empty space, in matter/antimatter pairs. These particles are always popping in and out of existence. The idea is that once, a long time ago, a super-particle and an anti-super-particle popped into existence, creating a positive and negative universe.

Both of these ideas are pretty interesting theories too. But again they are both insufficient because they merely create more questions. Why is there a nothingness from which particles can pop? Remember that "nothing" is still something. If existence didn't exist, there wouldn't even be "nothing".

As for the repeat exploding and collapsing of the universe, the questions can take several paths. How long has the universe been doing this? If it has only happened a finite number of times, why and how did it originally start? We're back to the original big bang question.

So people answer by saying the universe has existed forever. It doesn't matter if it has been exploding and collapsing forever. But let's say it has been here forever and there is no beginning. That's a pretty clever way to avoid the question of "how did it all start?". But that's not The Question we're trying to answer. Why does the universe exist at all? It doesn't matter that there was no beginning. Why is there any time at all for the universe to exist in?

It seems the deeper the scientific explanations go, the more they fail to answer The Question. Why is anything here? Anything at all? Instead of a complete lack of existence, something exists. And we still have no idea why or how.
Part two: Beliefs
Last modified: November 08, 2005 @ 10:16 MST
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