Monday, April 5, 2010

The Problem of Knowledge

The Real Truth Project is just (for now at least) me thinking about how I know what I know, if I really do know it. And why might my truth and someone else's truth be getting further apart rather than closer together? Why might different groups of people construe the world as if they weren't on the same planet, which as far as I can tell we are? And is there anything to be done about it.

It is an old, old problem, and people have been trying to solve it for at least 2-3 thousand years. I can't say that preliterate people didn't also ask something like this, but their thoughts on the subject had to be more like isolated flashes. Whatever one man or woman thought vanished within a couple of generations or less, unless it became part of the "canon" of the tribe -- what they were able, using special language (like poetry and song) and ritual to preserve in the collective memory of a couple of hundred people with no way to write anything down. So I'll try to stick with surviving writings which go back 2-3 thousand years, and certainly some Greeks of the 5th century BC and thereabouts were asking how do I know what I know, or do I really know it?

It is often said that knowledge is growing at in incredible exponential rate, and sometimes the explosive growth of written "stuff" is trotted out to prove this. I say "written stuff" rather than "written knowledge" because virtually anyone of any point of view will tell you some large percentage of it and maybe all but a tiny fraction, isn't knowledge at all, but is false, or maybe it is just gobbledeegook.

What would a "real" body of knowledge look like? It seems to me it should not be shot through with contradictions, like the body of "religious knowledge" taken collectively, or philosophy for that matter, or "political science".

Descartes in the 17c asked himself "Is there anything that I can't doubt" - he could doubt that he had a body or was standing on solid earth -- he could imagine how these things might be faked. But then he thought, "what is going on -- what has to be going on as I ask myself these questions and try to doubt every thing? Ah!, though is going on. Yes, there it is, going around in my head -- or maybe my head is an illusion, but I can't, by doubting -- a kind of thinking -- eliminate thought as a necessity. It is somewhere, in my head, in the mind of God, or in the giant computer of The Matrix. This "I know I exist because I think" was hailed as a great philosophical achievement. It seemed like some kind of ground to stand on, and ask "what else"?

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