Of anything I believe, the one thing I know to be true beyond any real doubt, that is the fact that I am real and conscious. In his Meditations, Descartes makes the point that much of what we know, which is based entirely in our senses, is corruptible and falsifiable. His famous phrase cogito ergo sum further illustrates this point by showing that in order for one to doubt your own existence, you must exist to doubt it. The question of the implications of the existence of the self or the rest of the world are hard to recognize. It is, in fact, its own philosophical issue. Does it really matter whether I really exist if I am still sentient and capable of experience?
Those who believe in strict creationism are, according to accepted science, convinced of their knowledge of the nature of the creation and development of the universe and all organisms. Though there is a slim possibility that they are correct, and that those of us who regard evolutionism as the truth have been deceived, but it is extremely unlikely. They believe that they are absolutely correct, and they argue that they have access to special knowledge from God or some other force that informs their understanding of biology and cosmology. The consequences of their belief in these principle are that they will continue to live without accepting the thoughts and wisdom of others, and they will attempt to spread their ideas to others who are not, in fact, wrong.
When I doubt myself while taking a test, the potential outcome is that I could be correct or incorrect. This is a situation where the implications, for me, are rather steep. I may pass or fail a test based upon the doubt of my initial thoughts and knowledge. This, however, is a relatively unimportant consequence for others. Questions of doubt and certainty in issues such as the debate over the origin of species and universe have much wider impact, and the outcome threatens to change the way we examine the natural word. These doubts control what we allow to color our views of the universe, religious certainty, or scientific doubt and skepticism. Perhaps the best outcome lies somewhere in between.
Everything we do in our lives is based in knowledge of things. Without really knowing what we are talking about, we will come to conclusions similar to the hypothetical future cosmologists in Brian Greene’s lecture. We will make assumptions about the universe without actual knowledge to back them up. In that situation, the old knowledge of the cosmos is ignored because of the lack of physical or sensory evidence of the existence of what was recorded. This is the result of a lack of knowledge regarding the situation being dealt with.
Perhaps a better question than to ask if there is anything we do that requires knowledge, would be to ask if there is ever anything we can do without prior knowledge of things. In his Meditations, Descartes points out that even the most fantastic dreams and images we can conjure are composed of parts which we already understood. This shows that in order to complete most complicated tasks or thoughts requires some understanding of what is going on. Perception of reality in order to collect the necessary knowledge is one of the few things we do without knowledge.
I think that there are certainly things which are not knowable by humans, chiefly among them the true nature of reality. We can only really grasp things as fully as our senses allow us. Once again this deals with the deceptions of Descartes “demon” of lies. That demon represents the fact that our senses can be tricked, and that what we believe to be truth cannot be entirely proven. Our knowledge of reality cannot extend beyond what the human brain is capable of deciphering.
An example of this idea is found in the senses of a snake. Snakes have eyes which are relatively similar to ours, however they see in what we have classified as “infrared.” Computers are often able to sense heat and simulate what a snake might see, but we cannot see heat in exactly the same way as a snake. It’s vision is as precise and highly evolved as our own, but it perceives reality in an entirely different way. The snake will never know realty as we do, and we will never really know it as the snake does, but neither of our species can know the true nature of the universe.
Knowledge changes throughout history, and it advances, or retreats, within very short amounts of time. Our knowledge of the natural world has advanced indescribably since our emergence from Africa as modern humans. Merely the fact that I know that shows that our understanding of our origins and of the process by which we have developed has grown. We owe the advancement of our knowledge not only to scientists, but to the wise men who help us work through the philosophical issues inherent in our sentience. The retreat of knowledge is, unfortunately, not a rare event either. This negative change in knowledge happens at moments such as the execution of Socrates, the crucifixion of Christ, the burning of the Library of Alexandria, and the destruction of cultural and intellectual advances by the Soviets after WWII.
My own knowledge has change though the course of my life similarly to the collective knowledge of the human race. I do not, however, experience any loss of knowledge. Mental disease would be the only reasonable cause of such memory loss. I gain knowledge whenever I learn new things, or even when my senses perceive new things or ideas. This increase in knowledge is at a more basic level than the intellectual knowledge of the humans race. My knowledge changes as I learn more through basic experiences. Certainty and knowledge will change through the course of both human and individual experience.
I was once certain of the existence of a literal, anthropomorphic, personal god. As far as I was concerned, God was literally watching over me, hearing my prayers, knowing my thoughts. This certainly went away as I learned about other religious and philosophical schools. I realized that the eastern religions’ pantheons of gods were just as viable as my understanding of God as the Judeo-Christian creator. It seemed to me to be an arrogant assumption to presume the accuracy of what my church and my family had always taught me. Uncertainty about this old knowledge lead me to hold a more open and changeable understanding of God. This is a less literal knowledge of God or gods.
It is entirely possible that something of which I am currently certain could be shown to be false. This is actually something which I expect. Descartes’ “demon” is at work whenever we use our senses. The demon could be deceiving me right now, but I wouldn’t notice. I think it is healthy for someone’s certainties to be shaken up and changed. This allows for the wisdom and knowledge of those who disagree with you to make their way into your worldview. Dialogue and discussion are more effective if those participating are willing to take on the position of their partner. It is preferable to be uncertain about most things, even if they are true, because when we have questions we will seek answers, and those answers will lead to other questions. This cycle allows the progression of knowledge to unforeseeable heights.
Brian Greene: Is Our Universe the Only Universe? Dir. Brian Greene. Perf. Brian Greene. TED Talks. TED, n.d. Web. 30 July 2013. <http://www.ted.com/talks/brian_greene_why_is_our_universe_fine_tuned_for_life.html>.
Descartes, Renee. “Meditation I and II.” Meditations on First Philosophy. N.p.: n.p., n.d. N. pag. Print.