The Problem of Knowing image

The Problem of Knowing

Have you ever wondered if your dreams were the real world, and the real world was just a very vivid dream? When I was a kid, I sometimes used to pinch myself in normal life, to check that it wasn’t a very long, very convincing dream. But what if the pinching was part of the dream? How would I find out? And for that matter, how can I know that I am here right now, reading this, and not sitting in a pink capsule being harvested for energy by robots (The Matrix), or being made to believe in a world by a powerful demon (Rene Descartes), or merely a brain in a vat?

Some would answer: you can’t. I came across a fair bit of this at university: you can know about your sense experiences, but you can’t know anything at all about what the ‘real’ world is actually like. This position is sometimes called phenomenalism, because it says we can know about the phenomena we experience, but not about any reality that they might point towards or be caused by. So I can’t know that I am drinking a nice hot cup of coffee. I can only know that I experience the sensation of heat, wetness and coffee flavour when I open my mouth (if I have one) and put my lips to the cup (or is there even a cup?). It is simply impossible to know that there isn’t a mad scientist, or futuristic robot, or malicious demon, making me think those things. Yikes.
Others would say: what a lot of cobblers. Of course I can know that I’m here – because if I’m not, then who is asking all these questions? It’s incredibly obvious that we can know things about the world. And the way we know things is by proving them. This is sometimes called positivism: there are some things we can know about for sure, because we can check they are true, either by definition (1+1=2) or by scientific experiment (water boils). These are the sorts of things we can know. If something can’t be known by maths or science – and, of course, the statement ‘God exists’ falls into this category – then it isn’t something you can know, because you have no way of being sure whether it’s true or not. Either knowledge is provable by scientific methods, or it isn’t knowledge at all.
I doubt there are that many phenomenalists around these days, except in philosophy departments. It’s all just a bit too weird to live that way. I mean, you might accept the idea in principle, but in practice you’ll probably process the world exactly the same way as everyone else.
There are plenty of positivists, though. I can’t remember the number of times someone has asked me why I believe in God when I can’t prove he exists, as if I should be able to do a laboratory experiment or something. People who talk like this are usually positivists.
A few years ago, I met a guy called J. John who used to do schools work in Nottingham. He would go into assemblies and talk to hundreds of students about God, and then at the end he would take open questions. The first question was almost always this, shouted out aggressively: ‘HAVE … YOU … SEEN … GOD?!’ As he paused to consider his answer, J. John said, he could see the students turn to each other in excitement, believing that they had trapped him. But John had a one-liner that he always used to give. ‘I would have seen God,’ he would say, ‘if I had lived at the right time. Have you seen Queen Victoria?’
That would tend to quieten things for a while, as the student tried to answer it in a way that didn’t make him look silly in front of his friends. But apparently, question two was just as predictable. J. John said it was almost certain that the second person would say: ‘All right then – you prove to me there’s a god!’ (This is a classic example of what I’ve been talking about: ‘if what you’re saying is true, then you ought to be able to prove it.’) So J. John would then explain that not all knowledge was scientific or mathematic, and talk about how other sorts of human knowledge worked, including knowledge of God. To most students, it just wasn’t something they had ever thought about.
I think people like this need to be asked the question, ‘How do you know?’ I think their problem is that they haven’t noticed something really important: that most of the things they believe cannot be proved by maths or by science. Most of them believe there was a First World War, even though they can’t do tests in a laboratory to prove it. Nobody can do a repeatable experiment on the statement ‘George Washington was President’, or ‘Charles Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol’, let alone ‘I love you’ or ‘Mozart is brilliant’ or ‘genocide is wrong’ or even ‘knowledge has to be provable’. So how do they know those things? I’ve often wondered about that.
Do you see what I mean? Most of the things I say in a day, and most of the things I know about the world, cannot be proven scientifically. It’s not that scientific methods aren’t important; it’s just that they can’t help us with a lot of human knowledge. Come to think of it, you can’t even do a scientific experiment to prove that you are there now, reading this book. So I don’t think positivism helps us with the demon, the vat, the dream, or the Matrix.
There is a way through this, of course, although it’s not the subject of today’s post. Maybe another day. But for the moment, it should be enough to note that the everyday argument, ‘I don’t believe in God because you can’t prove he/it exists’, is a little bit silly. Do you believe in Shakespeare?

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