It is written

I have a problem believing things. Regardless of what I hear or read, I always question it.

What is the source, what are possible motivations, are there any biases affecting the conclusions or observations?

The next step is to determine if the information accords with my own view of the universe. If it does, and the source is reasonably credible, then I am likely to regard it as factual. If the source is not credible, or of unknown credibility (say someone’s webpage), then I look more critically at it. If it does not accord with my view of the universe, then I need to determine if my view of the universe is wrong, or the information is wrong.

It really irritates me how uncritical most people are of information. Which leads into today’s title which is that once the information somehow makes it into print (which is quite easy in these days of the Internet), it seems to gain additional credibility. I suppose it has to do with the perceived permanence of the written (or otherwise recorded word – audio, photographic, or video). The most salient examples of writings which tend to be elevated beyond criticism are: holy scriptures, constitutions, laws, and anything written before you were born.

I am used to people telling me, “Why can’t you ever accept anything I tell you? Why do you always have to question it?” You should be too.

So, today’s moral is: Question everything. Accept no information as inerrant.

Of course, you have to believe in something, but your belief should always be arrived through critical judgment rather than complacent acceptance. Taking the high skeptical ground and declaring you believe nothing, or that nothing can be know leads to the silliness Lucretius warns against in his treatise ‘On The Nature of the Universe’: “If anyone thinks that nothing is ever known, he does not know whether even this can be known, since he admits that he knows nothing.“

Personally, I believe that everything can be known. That there is no question we cannot or should not ask. I also believe that people tend to be less than honest when presenting information – half-truths, spun truths and outright fabrications.

[Note: this section added 24-April-2005. This is a historical falsification free blog (except for typos and egregious grammatical errors).]

Of course, the statement "I believe everything can be known", is a good example of me knowing what I meant, but expressing it poorly.

There are whole sets of things I believe cannot be known - the future, for example. I don't believe the future is knowable because I believe that, at the very least, humans are endowed with free will - we are not automatons acting and reacting according to very specific physical processes. Consequently, our actions cannot be predicted and the outcomes and consequences cannot be predicted either (reasonable assumptions can be made though).

This leads me to reject the notion of an omniscient God who knows all things past, present, and future. I accept that God knows all things past and present - but the future is the sticking point. Someone would have to give me a better argument than St Thomas Aquinas' "God's knowing the future does not cause it to happen" - essentially, we are free willed beings, but God already knows what we are going to do, but don't worry, we are still free willed beings because "nowing"is not the same as "ausing".

Another thing that can't be known is whether what we believe is true or not. A set of beliefs can be entirely consistant, unfortunately, we cannot, using that set of beliefs, prove that is is true. For example, routine mathematics,1 + 1 = 2. We believe this to be true, but using mathematics, we cannot prove this is true. We would need some other machinery to prove the truth of that statement. Even if we had this machinery, we then would not be able to prove it is true. So we would have to create some other machinery to prove it ... ad infinitum. (The sme thing applies to people who believe whole heartedly in the Bible, or other spiritual writings, or a constitution. The document,itself, cannot be used to prove its own veracity. Some external mechanism / machinery is required: history, archeology, linguistics, cultural studies, etc...)

Of course, we cannot live in a state of unknowning or believing in nothing. To me, without any offer of proof, that is just plain silly.

At some point you have to buckle down and accept a series of axioms which form the fundamental core of your beliefs. You should also question those axioms (facts, dogmas, whatever...). Empricial validation of knowledge, while good, is not sufficient, you need approach from alternate persectives - just because something makes sense, doesn't mean it does. People have a tendency to make spurious associations ("Every time I wash my car it rains") that have absolutely zero correlation with any cause and effect.

So I believe that everything knowable can be known. What is knowable? Hmmm ... pretty much anything we can measure or understand. Of course, not everything I believe I can prove: 1 + 1 = 2, God, the sun will come up tomorrow. I have confidence that these things are true (and they form fundamental axioms for my life), but I am not able to prove them.

If 1 + 1 = 2, then I believe that we can build on that - indeed we have mathematics.

If God exists, then I believe we can know the nature of God.

If the sun will come up tomorrow, then I believe I can make plans for tomorrow.


ingrid said…
Hmmm... I'm not so sure that everything can be known. And sometimes, I suspect that it is better if it is not known?

I'm quite sure that I don't want to know everything. Which is good. Because I doubt that I have the capacity to take it all in: both emotionally and physically.
Richard said…
You are correct, not everything can be known. I made a statement that really needed a lot of conditional guarding. So, I've updated my blog in an attempt to correct that deficiency.

I cannot see why knowing should tax physical and/or emotional capacity.

At heart, I am a very inquisitive person. My mother says the first word I spoke was "what" and pointed at things. Actually, it was "co" as in "co to jest" (phonetically, in English, it would be "tso taw yest?" - "what is that?")

For me, knowledge is like a hunger. I get hungry and feed myself with more knowledge. Sometimes I nibble, sometimes I gorge.

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