On What We Know

On What We Know
Photo by Greg Rakozy

This essay is part one of “On What We Know”.  You can find part two here.

There are very few facts human beings cannot ever know.  In other words, there is minimal knowledge that is completely unknown and will likely remain unknown as long as humans exist.  So far, I have come up with a list of only four details we cannot definitively know:

  1. If a god or gods exist.
  2. If there is an afterlife or some sort of alternate dimension than the one in which we exist.
  3. What will happen in the future.
  4. The full scope and detail of exactly what happened at all points in history.

What is it that makes these particular details unknowable?  First, they are impossible to measure.

We can’t measure the existence of a god or gods (hereafter referred to as simply God).  There are many people in the world who believe they have evidence of the existence of God.  Still, there is no measurable way to verify such evidence.

The same goes for the existence of an afterlife.  We have no way to measure what happens to the essence or “soul” of a person once they die.  At the same time, we cannot know if there is some sort of alternate dimension outside of the dimension we know.

As for the future, it is impossible for us to measure, to the fullest extent, what has not actually occurred.  We can, of course, shape the future through our past and present actions.  We might intend for certain occurrences and hope for certain outcomes, but we cannot know them definitively until they occur.

Point four on the list is somewhat different when it comes to measurement.  The full range of historical detail stands alone as something that was, at one time, measurable.  Evidence existed at some point that could have told us exactly what happened at any given moment.

For many moments, though, the evidence has disappeared.  This leaves us with no, or at least not enough, existing factual evidence to accurately measure.

I have a tough time admitting to impossibility, so it is not without extensive deliberation that I submit to the idea these details are impossible to know.   In the end, though, all of these items require knowledge that does not exist in our physical world.


This is an essential point, as it is the physical world that is subject to the known laws of science.  Those laws dictate what details are measurable, and thus known, and which are not.  In short, the physical world around us provides us with facts.


The primary difference between unknowable details and all knowable facts is any proof of currently “unknowable” details lies outside of our physically known dimension.

Whether any answers to the question of God, and afterlife, and the happenings of the future could potentially lie in a dimension beyond the one in which we exist is, I will concede, theoretically possible.  Still, we have no verifiable way of knowing this in the current state of humanity.

The Possibility of Knowing

A fair question to come next in this discussion might be, “Well what about other things we don’t currently know?”  Such a list is, of course, extensive.  If I were to provide a short, though pathetically meager one, it might include:

  • The smallest particle in the universe
  • The full size and map of our Universe
  • Which came first, the chicken or the egg
  • The full scope and detail of what another person is thinking at any given moment.

There is a significant difference between these details and the aforementioned unknowable details.  These details are based on facts that exist within the physical world and are subject to the laws of science.


While we might not currently know the first two details on this list, we know the laws and pathways of facts that could tell us the answers.  Conceivably, it is possible to know these details.

On What We Know
Photo by Dimitri Vervitsiotis

As for the chicken and the egg, we have no scientific evidence that a chicken has ever spontaneously appeared, but we do have an overwhelming mass of evidence that chickens come from eggs.  The only choices we have here are to form a logical conclusion based on scientific evidence, or create a story based on unknown, nonexistent laws.

What about the thoughts of another person?  Obviously, a person can tell us what they are thinking.  However, there is a complexity to human thought that complicates the picture.  Though we can receive a verbal report from someone, and we can glean some measurement from their actions, our brains can think on a scope that is seemingly impossible to fully express through words and behavior.

At this moment, I can tell you I am putting quite a bit of thought into this sentence and this essay, but what about all of the other thoughts swirling in my brain simultaneously.

My current physical needs (it’s kind of cold in here, for instance…and I’m hungry), my thoughts on later today and the distant future, my concerns from yesterday, and so on.  And then, of course, there is what I am simply choosing to not tell you.

The only way to know such details would be to fully and completely reside within the brain and body of another.  While we do not currently have this ability in the fullest extent, it is conceivably possible.

Thoughts physically reside in the brains of human beings.  We do not, yet, have a full understanding of the complex neural pathways that construct and carry out thoughts, but we do know that thoughts come from a physical entity within the human body (the brain), and thus reside within our physically known universe.  Therefore, thoughts are subject to the laws of science residing within our known dimension.


Yet, it is not an uncommon practice for us to attempt to dissect and guess at the thoughts of others.  This brings us to the three ways we can “know” something.


Just the Facts

know
Photo by Emily Morter

The first method of knowing something is through factual evidence.  The scientific method gives us a process for examining any and all physical evidence in our physical universe.  We ask a question, review available information, create a hypothesis if we want to test another variable, test that hypothesis, analyze our results, and then allow others to analyze what we find.

This tried and true method has given us a window through which facts can be discovered.  Once those facts exist, they remain facts as long as they hold up to repeated testing.

Inference

The second method is through inference.  When a full range of facts is not available, we have the ability to infer the truth from the existing facts around us.  Historical facts are a perfect example of this.

Without the entire scope of factual evidence about a historical event, we are left with inferences.  How did other such events unfold?  How did the people involved act at other known points in history?  We can build a picture of the most likely scenario from such details.

The obvious problem with this method is we have no proof.  We do have evidence, but it is inconclusive and runs the risk of being erroneous.


Inference has to do with thinking we know something.  Inference rides right in the middle ground of analyzing facts and trusting our “gut”.


Faith

The third and final method is through faith.  With faith, we leave the realm of the known and enter the realm of belief.  Given the fact that all that resides in our physically known dimension is knowable and understandable through the laws of science, there is no need for us to rely on faith in order to believe factual evidence.

Though there are some details we might not fully understand, those details are, in the end, fully understandable once we gather enough factual evidence.

We do not need to have faith that the Earth’s climate is changing by the hands of humankind.  We can look to evidence.

We do not need faith to know that someone will not enter a public building in our hometown and shoot someone.  We can use factual evidence to create a society where the chances of this occurring decrease to near impossibility.


I must conclude, therefore, that faith is reserved only for those details we cannot know.  Is there a God?  Is there an afterlife?


This all brings us, at long last, to the point.

To be continued…

 

Disagreeable

River of stars. Disagreement.
Photo by Mark Basarab

 

We don’t solve problems by entrenching ourselves in disagreement.

This past weekend, two important events took place in the United States.  First, on Friday January 20, the country inaugurated Donald Trump as our country’s 45th president.

Then, on Saturday January 21, over one million people marched in the Women’s March on Washington, as well as its sister marches to protest the new president’s policy ideas and past statements.

Following the march, a friend of mine on Facebook shared this quote.

“Protesting ought to be used when human rights have been violated.  Protesting because you didn’t get your way is called a temper tantrum—no matter your age”.

Later, I read about a flurry of tweets during the inauguration pointed at the new President’s son, Barron Trump.

Several of these were shocking, but one stuck out to me as particularly malicious.

“#barrontrump looks like a future rapist”.

Hard Questions

It is no secret we are extremely divided in this point in United States history.  In 2014, the Pew Research Center released this report  on the drastic level of political polarization in the U.S.

Just before the 2016 election, another Pew report  found these divisions alive and well.

It seems we have some questions to ask ourselves:

Do we want so much disagreement?

Do we want racial divisiveness?

Do we want religious animosity?

Do we want poverty in our society?

Do we want people to be healthy and medically cared for?

Do we want an educated populace?

Do we want unwanted pregnancies?

Do we want crime?

Do we want to move forward together?

Sticks and Stones and Lots of Words

We do not move one step toward solutions to problems by disparaging one another.

Calling the President’s son a vampire or millions of fellow Americans babies does absolutely nothing to foster solutions to social problems.

These actions do the opposite.  They build a wall directly in the way of solutions.  You don’t build a functioning healthcare system in this way, you don’t agree on reasonable immigration standards, and you don’t save any children of any age.

All you do is push us farther apart.

Hate the Player, Not the Game

We do not move one step toward solutions to problems by attacking the personalities of others.

Many Republicans spent eight solid years decrying the despicable personality of Barrack Obama.  They called him weak, dishonest, untrustworthy, undiplomatic, and un-American.

Democrats are now taking their turn with Donald Trump.  They call him a misogynist, unfit for the presidency, deplorable, and a sexual predator.

Solutions do not arise from feelings of dislike or hatred toward another person or group.  We do not solve a single problem by attacking people for their personality traits.

All this does is push us farther apart.

Just the (convenient) Facts

We do not move one step toward solutions to problems by only listening to the facts that are convenient for our “side”.

The Pew Research Center made an enlightening discovery in 2014 regarding how we get our information.    It turns out we focus on very different sources depending on our political affiliation.

opposites, disagreementAs they stated, “When it comes to getting news about politics and government, liberals and conservatives inhabit different worlds.”

We cannot hear one another when we are not listening.  We cannot understand dissenting opinions without first listening to those opinions.

None of us is always right.  On the contrary, all of us are occasionally wrong.  Solutions only happen when we are all looking for true, verifiable facts.

If we want to solve problems, the only realistic choice is to cease debating on the merits of personality, and instead focus all debate on the merits of facts.

Out of Many, One

If we want to solve problems as a country of United States citizens, then we can choose to do so.

We could focus on the facts surrounding the problems we face.

In addition, we could encourage or discourage our elected leaders based on their actions instead of their personalities.

Currently, we are not collectively choosing this path.  Instead, we are focusing on what we like or dislike about our leaders and each other, attempting to “win” by making the “other side” look worse than us, and ignoring facts.

We have divided ourselves.

Following the election, a brilliant researcher and author Jonathan Haidt shared his thoughts on this in a TED talk.     According to Haidt, it all comes down to who is on our side.  If we see each other as Americans who are on the same side, we can shrink the divide standing between us.

He had what I thought was some great advice:

“I think you have to make an effort — that’s the main thing. Make an effort to actually meet somebody.  Everybody has a cousin, a brother-in-law, somebody who’s on the other side. So, after this election –wait a week or two, because it’s probably going to feel awful for one of you — but wait a couple weeks, and then reach out and say you want to talk.”

We can choose to solve our challenges in this country, but first we need to decide that we are on the same team.