What do we know?

DescartesThe French philosopher René Descartes adopted scepticism as his position from which to view the world. He explained this with an image. Imagine, he says, that there is a demon that continually seeks to deceive you about the world. Then you can take nothing for granted. What you think is true may be false; what seems to be the physical world with its laws may simply be a delusion. How then can we know anything?

We obviously need to find something that we can be sure of and then build on this as a secure foundation. But if all is deception and delusion, what can we ever be sure of? Descartes thought he had found it in what has become known as “the Cogito“, the Latin phrase “cogito ergo sum” or “I think therefore I am”. Another way of putting this is that if we are deceived, then there must at least be someone or something that is deceived: thus at least one thing exists and fortunately it is a thinking creature.

Upon this slender foundation, Decartes attempted to build his philosophy. How successful he was depends on your point of view but in philosophy, reaching a final goal is arguably less important than making important discoveries along the way and Descartes certainly did so. His discoveries are still discussed today.

NietzscheAs for the Cogito, the apparently safe foundation to knowledge that Descartes had promulgated, even this was called into doubt by Friedrich Nietzsche. Freddy, as he is affectionately known to many philosophers, was an odd character. For one thing he became insane but not before he had run amok through the philosophical world, turning it upside down. People are still evaluating his work today. If he didn’t actually kill the Cogito, he at least severely dented it.

He invented the following apparently fantastic scenario, strangely remininscent of Descartes’ demon; what if there is a cloud of disembodied thought floating around, among which there is the thought that these thoughts belong to a specific “I” which doesn’t actualy exist? A series of collections of thoughts each including the thought “These are my thoughts” would give the impression that an “I” existed where there was none. So much for the spurious certainty of the Cogito. Or “Boom! Boom!”, as Basil Fox might have said.

In an environment where only disembodied thoughts exist there are no “things”, “events” or “laws of nature”. Not even a thinking “I” whose thoughts they are. “We” can count on nothing. “Our” thoughts are mere delusions. Nothing that “we” think exists does exist. “We” can know nothing.

Does anyone believe this Nietzschean realm of disembodied thoughts exists and actually is what “we” think of as the world? Probably not. Not outside a secure mental institution, that is. I say that, not because I think you have to be mad to think like that but because I think that if you did think like that you would probably go mad.

So what do we do now – forget the whole nightmare and get back to working out what happens when you fall into a black hole or whether it is feasible to build a manned station on the moon? Or should we be worrying about Mad Old Freddy’s mad old ideas?

Like the Buddha, I think a path in between the two extremes is the best. If we surrender to the fear that all is delusion, then we might as well give up trying to learn anything and not bother to get up in the morning (or at any other time). On the other hand, if we are too confident and are not ready to revise our ideas or to abandon them if new evidence throws up grave problems, then we are again heading into a world of delusion and disillusion.

We must go forward boldly but with caution and a touch of humility. The more evidence we accumulate, the more consistent it appears and the more logical the theories we build to fit it all together, the greater our confidence that there must be some reality behind what we are learning and that it must bear some passing resemblance to the portrait we are making of it.

Science and philosophy are cumulative systems of knowledge; they never claim to be complete or perfect, just a little bit more complete than previously and even then, ready to go back and think again. That is our best guarantee that we really are coming to grips with reality. Our knowledge of reality is like the sea: the further in you go, the deeper it gets. No once-and-forever pronouncement of the “truth” can keep pace with what we are learning about the world. Grow or die.

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About SilverTiger

I live in Islington with my partner, "Tigger". I blog about our life and our travels, using my own photos for illustration.
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3 Responses to What do we know?

  1. baralbion says:

    I have one big problem with philosophy. Well, several actually, but this one will do for now. In all scientific investigation the aim is to arrive at an unbiased view based solely on the facts. This is generally achievable in examining a cell, or a star, or electro-magnetism, although even then I understand there exists the possibility that experimenters, simply by being there, can influence the outcome of the experiment. When it comes to philosophy, the philosopher is clearly both the examiner and the examined. In that case, how is it possible that any judgement on the human situation can ever be impartial?

    For instance, our evolution has made us aware of the dimensions of time and space only in relation to ourselves. What is big and small and long short are so only in our terms. There may be a bigness and a smallness way beyond our imagining. Similarly, our notions of knowledge, morality, beauty, cause and effect, rationality and so on are entirely and solely human. Could there not be another viewpoint somewhere “out there” which either denies these concepts altogether or takes, say, a diametrically opposed position on them. I have encountered no philosophers who have considered this possibility. But then perhaps I haven’t read enough philosophy.

  2. SilverTiger says:

    Modern philosophy is an incredibly broad field and no one can ever have “read enough of it”. Well, A.C. Grayling might have and he has written a lot of it too. I intend to read all his books if I live long enough.

    Far from philosophy being some sort of poor relation to science, it is actually what keeps science on its toes. Or did Karl Popper and so many others write in vain? Epistemology is crucial here and this is one of the problems that Descartes was concerned with.

    Philosophy isn’t a navel-contemplating pastime whose practitioners sit in ivory towers considering abstruse theoretical problems. (Well, they can, if they wish. And why not? It’s fun…) People may not realize it but philosophy is being “done” all the time, everywhere by everyone. Are you a vegetarian? If not, why not? If you are, do you ever “cheat” and if so, why is that OK (if it is)? Should you pay extra and buy organic products at Sainsbury’s? Is it right to boycott McDonalds? Should you send your kids to a church school even though you never go to church? Is it OK to exceed the speed limit when there is no one else around or should you always obey it? These are philosophical questions and people are asking them (and presumably answering them) every day, not “philosophers” (well, they do too), but ordinary people like you and me.

    In particular, science is a very philosophical subject. What is a “fact”? Can there be such a thing as “proof”? What do we mean by “truth”? One of the most important branches of philosophy at the moment is philosophy of mind. Some people might be able to read books on philosophy of mind and see how it differs from science but I can’t.

    There is in fact only one field of enquiry, namely the search to accumulate knowledge about the world (and ourselves, of course). It includes many approaches, each suitable for a particular type of enquiry. Science and philosophy are two of these approaches. Each is valid in its own way.

    Did Socrates drink his cup of hemlock in vain? For my money, no.

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  3. baralbion says:

    Still doesn’t solve the basic problem of humankind being the measure of all things. If, as seems to be the case, we can only ever know anything from a human perspective, then how can we ever know anything at all? We think we’re wonderful: “What a piece of work is man”, etc. But a single cell organism is equally wonderful, being just as well adapted to its environment. From its perspective it’s at the top of the tree. And then what if there are universes way beyond our imaging where the things we hold dear mean absolutely nothing?

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