Friday, August 30, 2013

Scientific Determinism, Part III: Knowledge and Certainty

The assumption made about the limits of our knowledge is key to developing further theories on how we process information to come to an understanding of higher-order problems, as well as our construction of choice sets when faced with choices (whether ethical or preferential in nature). Here I will argue the skeptical view that we may know nothing infallibly. It is important to specify what constitutes knowledge, then subsequently to realize that we do not possess it.  Finally, I will consider the implications of this - if we do not possess knowledge, what do we possess?

To know a fact is to say that the fact cannot possibly be incorrect. Consider an object in front of you. If you were to close your eyes, you would expect that object to remain in front of you when you were to open them again. Nevertheless, it is conceivable that the object may no longer be there. There are myriad explanations for why this might have occurred - in fact, there are infinite possible explanations, just as we can conceive of infinite explanations for why an action did not cause a reaction, as we have seen.

We may construct these explanations in advance of opening our eyes, in a way, hypothesizing about the explanation of this future occurrence assuming that it takes place. In so doing, we are acknowledging the possibility (however small or implausible) that such a process could occur to result in this outcome. We may have no reason to believe that an extraterrestrial being has removed the object from in front of us - but, now, we have acknowledged it as something that might have happened, as we have conceived it, and we have no reason to doubt that it could possibly happen. All we have are our prior experiences, which lead us to conclude that this is highly unlikely.

Note that, in our conscious thought, we may reduce this formal structure of knowledge and possibility to shorthand vernacular. If asked, someone may say, "Of course it is impossible that an extraterrestrial could have taken the object." When pressed for reasoning, they might reasonably explain that no evidence has been produced of the existence of extraterrestrials; that, even if there were, there has been none produced of their existence on earth; and that there would be seemingly no reason for the fellow to take the object, if all of this failed to hold. But here again, we have acknowledged at each step that the previous explanation might not hold, by entertaining the possibility; we have not ruled out this possibility by any a priori knowledge, such that it could not possibly be correct, as the definition of knowledge requires.

Nor is our absence of knowledge limited to bodies external to us. Consider Wittgenstein's proposition that he has a brain:

"So far no one has opened my skull in order to see whether there is a brain inside; but everything speaks for, and nothing against, its being what they would find there." (emphasis mine)
What, then, are we describing when we say that "we know" something? The point of emphasis in the statement above bears it out: We mean that the overwhelming body of evidence points to the proposition being true, and that the contrary proposition has nothing in its favor. 

But, did we emerge from the womb with this understanding that we had a brain, or what the color "blue" was? Or did we, over repeated experience as children, come to the understanding that this was so? I would argue the latter; these experiences are our evidence for believing any proposition. Perhaps the first time we were shown a blue-colored object, someone pointed to this object and said "blue"; and through repetition, we came to relate the concept of "blue" to this object. Similarly, as adults, perhaps we encounter a scientific problem and decide to perform an experiment. The result of the experiment does not yield the answer immediately, but repeated trial may embolden our convictions in some fact to the point that we are certain in it, enough to rely upon it as an empirical truth to add to our mental structure of the world.

Thus, while true knowledge is unobtainable, degrees of certainty can be established to the point where true knowledge is indistinguishable from our belief. This process is Bayesian mathematically: We use our initial experiences as evidence, and start from a more certain point when we encounter our next experiences. We may become quite certain in a proposition before encountering evidence to the contrary. Rather than defining a point at which we "know" infallibly, Bayesian thought always admits for the possibility that we are incorrect. But, by being certain, i.e., by having a tremendous amount of confidence in the proposition, we can use it to draw further conclusions, and thus, ultimately, to act.

Items in grey text above are topics of further consideration which will be linked back to this article (and this article updated to reflect the discussion of those topics as they are available here).


  1. Do you also mean that you do not believe that it is completely knowable that our own acts that we commit are good or evil in complete or in degree? Such a proposition seems unreasonable in regards to moral agents.

    1. I think that a distinction has to be made between problems which are moral or ethical in nature, from those which are scientific in nature (see my definition of what constitutes a 'scientific' question here: )

      I'll have much more to say on ethics in the future, but I'll address it briefly here. Ethics is, at the very least, built up from our experience anthropologically as a species. Under this assumption, society as a whole dictates what is good or evil. Being the arbiter of values gives the whole of society the authority to judge men on that basis, and it is based on this premise that proper governments and systems of justice are founded.

      One might make a stronger assumption, namely, that ethics are in the domain of a higher power. In that case, we would strive to achieve what God has declared to be virtuous; in pursuit of that virtue, man would collectively establish systems of justice to punish wrongdoing in the eyes of God.

      The second assumption may very well be valid, but it makes it difficult (in my mind) to say that virtue and vice are knowable if we say that they are in the domain of a higher power. In this case, we are really in no better position than the scientist attempting to draw conclusions from noisy data. Unless we can claim the same divine knowledge as the God we would strive to please, then we are imperfect agents; but in much the same way that scientific evidence can provide us degrees of certainty (and make us very certain indeed in a given proposition), so can the social evidence of our peers provide us degrees of certainty that we are acting ethically.