How Should I Know?

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Of all the questions which have been asked over and over down through the ages, . . .Oops, I already started a different essay with that line. But the title question of this essay is another one of those questions that is frequently asked but seldom answered. The reason, of course, is that when people say 'How should I know?' they really mean 'How do you expect me to answer your question when there is obviously no way for me to know the answer?' I guess 'How should I know?' is just a short way of getting off the hook when asked a tough question.

In this essay, I am going to try to answer the question literally and seriously. I don't mean to answer "How should one know?" because there are too many 'shoulds' in the world already and I don't presume to tell anyone else how they should know anything. Instead, I am going to describe how I believe I should know. That is, I am going to describe what I believe is the proper way for me to conduct my own personal search for truth. If this helps anyone else, it will be purely accidental.

The obvious immediate answer to the question is a single word: learn! If you learn something, then you will know it. That seems simple enough, but it begs the question 'Can you know anything without learning it?' Now that's where it starts getting interesting.

To tell you about my strategy for searching for truth, let me talk about the ways in which we can know anything, and then tell you something about my experiences with, and my attitudes toward those ways.

Let's start with the easy one. We can learn. That is, we can know something after we learn it. The mechanism for learning is to have some authority tell us or show us, and then if we get it, we will know. The authority is, of course, presumed to know whatever it is we are going to learn. So to analyze this method, we need to look at what that authority might be.

Authorities might be people, like parents, preachers, teachers, advertisers, journalists or scientists. They might also be things like books, movies, globes, web sites and radio talk shows. Of course these things are just media used by people who, even though we may not know who they are, are the real authorities.

But there are some authorities that are not people. Many people would claim that some books, in particular the Bible, the Koran, etc. are the word of God and therefore represent a much higher authority than people do. I'll refer to these as 'scriptures' in this essay.

Another authority that is not a person I will call 'nature'. This is perhaps the earliest authority we learn anything from. When a baby rolls too near the edge, she somehow 'knows' that gravity is about to grab her and pull her down onto the floor.

For the scientists, whose profession is the search for truth, nature is the ultimate, if not the only, authority that they recognize. They set up experiments and observe what nature does in order to find out and know things.

Finally, there may be an authority beyond or outside of nature. If there is a supernatural authority, then we might learn from it in any number of ways, only one of which is God writing scriptures, which we have already covered. Other methods might be visions, dreams, Near Death Experiences, or other personal revelations direct from the supernatural authority to us as individuals. Others might be more public, like ouija board communication, seances, readings, channeling, etc. In this essay, I will call this 'spiritual' authority.

All of these authorities are agencies outside of me from whom I can learn and thereby know things. So, to be complete, all that leaves is me, or what is inside of me. I may be able to know things just from within me.

So now we have a list of ways in which we can know. Next, I will go through the list and tell you a little about my experiences and attitudes toward each one, and finally I will summarize my own strategy for my search for truth.

Parents. Probably like most kids, for a long time I thought my dad knew everything. When I was in the phase of asking endless questions, he answered them all and I don't ever remember him saying that he didn't know something. I learned many things that are still stuck in my brain. For example he told me that "Within the limits of perfect elasticity, deformations of any sort, be they twists, bends, or stretches, are proportional to the forces producing them." When he told me that, it rolled off his tongue like water over a falls. He had had to memorize that and recite it in school and he grinned each time he recited it to me. I have never interpreted what that grin meant, but I am pretty sure he understood the principle described by what he was saying. I, also, memorized that string of words so that I could recite it that way long before I ever knew what a force was. So now I ask, when did I first 'know' about Hooke's Law? After I formally studied Physics? or when I memorized that description? or did I know it instinctively much earlier, possibly as a result of stretching rubber bands, and I was just reminded?

Preachers. I was brought up in a religious environment and was taught from the outset the doctrines of the Lutheran faith. I can't say that I believed it all because I always had doubts about the more preposterous teachings. I did, however, have faith that someone, at least the minister, knew the truth and could explain what seemed to me to be inconsistencies and nonsense. In my early questioning, I was put off and told that, by and by when I went to confirmation classes, all my questions would be answered. Well, they weren't and I was shocked and disappointed. I also felt a sense of enlightenment when I realized that there were obvious questions to which no one knows the answers. This gave me a tremendous sense of freedom to explore the answers for myself and to trust my own intuition and common sense.

Teachers. Formal education is the official way to learn and thus know. There is no doubt that we can, and do, learn a lot in school. But in a lot of cases I wonder if this is because of or in spite of teachers. One vivid memory from my freshman year in high school was the awful trouble I got into when I argued with the General Science teacher in front of the class. She was telling us that a square pipe, one inch on a side, would carry the same amount of water as a round pipe, one inch in diameter. "An inch is an inch!" she literally screamed at me. I disagreed and argued. I simplified the problem, and she took the position that a one-inch square had the same area as a one-inch diameter circle. The principal of the school finally came to settle the issue in front of the class and he defended her with mealy mouthed double-talk even though everyone in the room including him and the teacher knew that I was right. She held a grudge against me that affected my grade in that class for the rest of the year. I learned an important lesson in that class, but it had nothing to do with geometry.

One more formal education anecdote that I can't resist telling. When I was in college I used to walk home over a big hill with my roommate at the end of the day. One dark winter night with about 6 inches of snow on the ground, I remember a particular conversation. Earl, my roommate, was taking Geology and I was not. I was fascinated by the subject so I would ask Earl questions about it because there were a lot of things I wanted to know. I told him that I believed in the possibility of continental drift because it seemed obvious to me from looking at a globe that the American continents must have at one time been right up against Europe and Africa. I remember Earl's vehement reaction. He started rattling off the current official Geology party line about how ridiculous the idea was. He said that a great number of uneducated people have talked about that ludicrous idea for a long time but any one who was educated in Geology knew the perfectly valid reasons why continental drift was impossible. That was in 1959.

In 1970 I bought, for 25 cents, a College Geology textbook by Chauncy D. Holmes published in 1962, the year I graduated. I wanted a reference book that contained such things as the designations of epochs and such, but I was delighted to have the official argument by the experts that Earl had tried to relate to me that winter night. Somewhere in the early to middle '60s, virtually all geologists did an about face. But they changed the name from the scorned 'continental drift' to the more respectable 'plate tectonics'.

Advertisers and Journalists . I lump these together because they are both professional people who use powerful mass media to ostensibly try to teach us things. The journalists try to teach us what is going on, and the advertisers try to teach us what is good for us. Of course the reality is that the advertiser's main objective is to get us to buy a product, and the journalist's main objective is to get the advertiser to believe that we are paying attention to the journalist. From this description, it should be clear that I don't trust either as an authority to help me discover the truth.

Books, movies, globes, web sites and radio talk shows . Since these are all produced by people who are either preachers, teachers, advertisers, journalists, scientists or other authority figures, I have the same attitude toward the medium as I do the author, if I know something about the author. If not, then I don't really trust them at all.

Scriptures. There are a lot of people in the world for whom scripture is the ultimate authority. For me, there are two major sources of doubt with regard to scripture.

First is the question of whether God is really the author. Of the many scriptures in the world, the adherents of each typically answer by saying, 'Yes, God is the author of mine, but not the others'. The logical conclusion from this is inescapable: somebody is wrong. Since none of the adherents is any more convincing to me than the others, I doubt them all.

The second problem is that, even if God were indeed the author, did the message find its way to us from the ancient original parchment, down through the ages and translations, without having the message get garbled? I doubt it.

Nature. Even though Science 'speaks for nature' in a sense, by reporting to us how nature responded to their experiments, I want to consider Science a separate authority. By 'nature' I mean what I experience myself as a result of existing and living in the world. Nature, without a doubt, supplies me with most of the knowledge that I have. By living, I have experiences that tell me a huge amount about where things are, what they sound like, what they look like, how they feel, what they smell like, what is likely to happen when certain things get lined up in certain positions, and all kinds of other knowledge about the world. Quantity, but not necessarily quality. If I am interested in learning something more profound from nature, then either I have to set up my own experiments or trust the results of the scientists who make a living running experiments. . .Unless. . .maybe nature has endowed me with a bunch of knowledge that I have forgotten, as Socrates said. Maybe Chomsky is right and we do know the (or some) rules of grammar before we ever hear a word uttered. We might know a lot of things naturally, and even though I don't know how much to trust this source, at least we should leave the channel open.

Science. For detailed facts about what is going on in the Universe, I think there is no better authority than Science. All you have to do to appreciate that assertion is to consider how Science has changed the world in the last two to three hundred years. They have got a good handle on how nature operates, out to twenty decimal places in some cases. The problem is that they don't comment much on the really interesting questions. For example, they can tell me a lot about wavelengths of light and Quantum Chromodynamics but they can't tell me why green looks to me the way it does. They also haven't had much, except nonsense, to say about consciousness until recently, and still, I don't think they are even close to describing it. In addition to what science doesn't say, there is still a reason for doubt about what they do say as I illustrated in my Geology anecdote.

Spiritual. It is strange how spiritual authority is regarded by people in general. I think that a large percentage of the population believes in some kind of spiritualism outside the doctrines of established religions, yet spiritualism is put down by religion and science as well as the established media. Those institutions don't give Art Bell any more credibility than they do the tabloid reports or the movie "Ghostbusters". It's officially a sort of a joke.

What I think is happening is that the 'official' institutions like science, religion, education, government, and the media have adopted certain criteria to determine which ideas they will consider in their domain. This forms a sort of screen that traps the ideas that fit and they are then dealt with by the trapping institution. The rest of the ideas fall to the bottom, so to speak, and land in (I just noticed that I put this 'spiritual' category at the bottom of my list also. Hmmm.)

The big problem that results from this 'screening' process is that in addition to all the goofy nonsense, which naturally falls to the bottom, any good idea that didn't get trapped by an official institution also falls to the bottom to get mingled with a vast morass of nonsense. If you find a good idea down there and pluck it out, it still smells bad.

So among the accounts of ghost sightings, werewolf mischief, alien flybys, alien abductions, saquatch sightings, ouija board conversations, Edgar Cayce readings, Seth speeches, Ramtha ramblings and so on, there very well may be some nuggets of truth.

Me. What do I know? (Make sure you don't inflect the words of this question as _ _ - - . That would sound like I was trying to confirm that you actually asked me what I know. Instead inflect it as _ _ - _. That makes it sound more like 'How could I possibly know anything?') Can I possibly know anything without some outside authority teaching me? That's a good question.

I think that the answer may be yes. For example, I know what green looks like to me. No one else can really, really know what green looks like to me. I cannot describe greenness in words to my satisfaction, much less to convey to any one else what I experience when I see green. I can point out a lot of green things to another person and get agreement that they also see green when they look at those things, but neither of us really knows whether our experiences are the same or different.

And then there was Socrates. I was impressed when I first read the dialog of Plato in which Socrates made the point that you never learn anything but instead you already know everything, but have forgotten it. What we call learning is simply getting the necessary prods and stimulation to start remembering things. Socrates said you can get anyone to learn anything just by asking the right questions and telling them nothing. This had a great impact on me because I recognized the experience in my own education; it seemed to me in many cases that 'I should have known that' or 'I should have been able to figure it out for myself without having to be told.'

Now, at last, "How should I know?" How do I think I should proceed in my search for truth?

I operate on a couple of principles. First, I have a hunch or a suspicion that Socrates was right; I think I did know everything, but I have just forgotten. Secondly, I have a hunch or a suspicion that all of the authorities I mentioned that claim that they know something are also right. That is, I think they are right in the sense of the blind men in the fable declaring that they know what an elephant is from their limited experience and perspective.

To search for truth, then, I consider, with an open mind, ideas from any and all sources. I start by assuming that there is some truth to the idea that may be hidden, or disguised and I try to tease the truth, or falsity out. The primary foe in this process is the semantics of language. As our president has demonstrated for us, you can take any idea, true or false, and by spinning the language and redefining the word 'is', turn truth to falsehood and vice versa (emphasis on the vice).

The final judge in this process is me. I think that in spite of what scientists say, I think reality makes sense and if an explanation of something is nonsense, then it probably isn't true. Of course what makes sense to me doesn't necessarily make sense to others, so as a result, the truth probably won't ever be agreed upon by all people. We are all blind men talking about the same elephant in a much bigger picture.

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