On What We Know…continued

know continued
Photo by Dino Reichmuth

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

As I stated in part one of this essay, there are three methods of knowing–facts, inference, and faith.  It seems we struggle with which of the three methods are most appropriate for the situations we encounter.

When we face a large-scale social challenge, it would seem most logical for us to default to a mode of fact-finding and scientific understanding.  Surprisingly often, however, this does not happen.

A War of Inference 

One example is the United States war with Iraq beginning in 2003.  We entered this war on supposition.  The United States intelligence community and elected leadership claimed they gathered facts.

Officials paraded pictures past Congressional committees, news cameras, and the eyes of the public.  Pictures are, of course, facts.  They are artifacts showing specific details.  What details they show, however, requires some sort of interpretation.  That is where things get messy.

In truth, the public, the news media, most elected leaders, and likely many members of the intelligence community were missing key factual information.  They could not prove the “facts” delivered about Iraq and its “weapons of mass destruction”.

Therefore, we all entered that war on inference.  We inferred the true nature of the situation without having all of the facts.  Had we as a country (i.e. the entire population) demanded factual evidence, we may have never entered the war.

In other words, facts and patience could have saved thousands of lives and millions of dollars.  The unfortunate truth is the United States has a history of suspending logic and the search for factual evidence when it comes to war.

Iraq, Afghanistan, Vietnam; the leadership of the country entered each of these wars after the populace allowed them to do so.  The populace did not demand scientifically validated factual evidence that actually did exist.

Instead, the populace placed faith in leaders, and allowed those leaders to charge headlong into major turning points in human history.

Gotta Have Faith?

You certainly took note of my use of the word “faith” just now.  This is an opportunity to further clarify the meaning of this word as it relates to this discussion.  In its use above, the word is actually referring to trust in other humans rather than faith in an unmeasurable idea or belief.

For example, consider driving over a bridge.  Each time you do so, you are relying on faith that the bridge will hold your weight and remain standing.  In what are you actually placing your faith, though?

Is it in some unmeasurable force holding that bridge up?  No.  You are actually placing your trust in the people who designed and built the bridge, the materials they used to build it, and the laws of physics.  You are trusting in scientifically verifiable processes.

Photo by Joseph Yates

We all know it is unrealistic to expect that every human being will know every detail of factual evidence, such as how to build a bridge.  Two things are absolutely certain, however.

First, it is possible to know all factual evidence within our physical universe.  Second, we have the ability to learn factual knowledge and teach it to other people.

When we gain knowledge through factual evidence in our world, we understand our world.  This is the only true way to know how our world actually works.  When we know things, we can accomplish things.  When large groups of us know things together, we can accomplish even greater feats.

Knowing What to Know

We fail in the process of knowing and accomplishing when we attempt to solve social challenges by using inappropriate methods of knowing.  We fail to differentiate between what we can know and what we cannot know.

When people don’t understand the world around them, they tend to rely more on inference than factual understanding.

Rather than collectively searching for facts that can better explain something, people “follow their gut” as they search for a more expedient method toward knowing.

For example, let’s say someone doesn’t trust a government official.  As a result, this person may not look for their own factual evidence to support or refute what this government official is saying.  Instead, he or she might focus on that official’s intentions and decide not to “believe” that person.

Even more damaging to the search for true knowledge is our tendency to claim to know things we cannot know, and then fight over these details.

The obvious example here is our frequent fighting over religion.  This story is unfortunately familiar.  One religious group claims to have access to a certain body of knowledge that explains the workings of the world.  Therefore, they conclude, the social rules by which we live should be dictated by this body of knowledge.

This group then attempts to force their social rules onto other people, many of whom live by different religious rules and guidelines.  The groups push back and forth against one another for days, years, and centuries resulting in misunderstanding, arguing, and war.

Faith, ultimately, does not serve to solve problems in our physical world.  It can serve as a guide for our personal actions, but not as a method for solving problems.

Gotta have Facts

The bottom line is we do not know if relying on faith will fill the bellies of the poor, or stop bullets from flying, or stop bombs from dropping, or heal the atmosphere of the Earth.

Photo by Patrick Tomasso

We do know that feeding the poor, not pulling the trigger, not going to war, and not spewing pollutants into the air will stop all of these things.  We know this because these are physical entities within our physical dimension, and they are under our control.

Faith is not a worthless practice.  Faith in the unknowable has been an eternal facet of the human condition.  However, there is a difference between relying on faith as a guide for our behavior and relying on faith as a method for getting things done.

We don’t need faith as a method when we already have the tools and the power to get things done.

Will and a Prayer

We don’t need to sit back and pray that God will do something we already have the ability to do ourselves.  When we have the ability, prayer as a method is an empty endeavor.

Prayer can instead motivate us, gather us around a cause, and center us to logically think through the steps toward a solution.

Some religious practitioners may argue strenuously with the ideas I am presenting here.  There are many people who advance the idea God has a certain will God is attempting to fulfill on Earth.  Many people interpret prayer as a method for learning that will.

Once again, however, I argue that interpreting God’s will is an entirely faith-based exercise.  We have absolutely no factual evidence that would help us to measure whether or not God’s will has actually been achieved.

We have religious texts, of course, but these texts are not annals of scientifically-derived factual evidence.  They cannot definitively explain the physical world or prescribe solutions to problems created by the hands of humans.  Ultimately, we do not need them to do so.

We can measure what is possible and what we have achieved within our human capability.

Suspending rational thought and discovery of what exists in our physical world in order to let events occur based on faith alone makes no logical sense when it comes to social challenges we can solve.

Is it God’s will to pollute the planet when we can see that such pollution is detrimental to human and ecological health?

Is it God’s will that people kill one another in small-scale and large-scale conflict when other ways of interacting exist and we have proven these methods work?

Is it God’s will to have rampant and destructive financial inequality that exists solely because of the rules we have made up?

Is it God’s will that children sitting in school die at the hands of a person wielding guns when we have ample evidence we can keep such things from happening?

Is it God’s will to keep people from receiving healthcare when solutions to this problem already exist all over the world?

When it comes to solving social challenges, we are easily sidetracked by using the inappropriate method of knowing something.  Doing this actually halts human progress and blocks solutions.

Social challenges exist within our known, physical Universe.  We have constructed them using the rules, behaviors, and methods of our making.  Therefore, we can deconstruct them and solve them.

We can center all discussion about such challenges on logic and reason, and use a scientific method to discover the steps toward solutions.

Then, inference and faith can serve in their rightful places as guides rather than methods.

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

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.


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”.


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…