What We Can Know for Sure

My golfing buddy and I have been playing golf together for more than ten years now. At least once a week during golf season, and often two or three times a week we drive together to one of the courses we play at. The outing usually involves at least a half hour drive. So we have lots of time to talk about things that matter to us.

Sometimes it’s baseball or basketball. Sometimes it’s about cars and driving habits. Often we talk about rules – rules of the road, rules of social interaction, the legal system – how they control and direct our lives, whether they should be considered strong (non-negotiable) or weak (guidelines), how they should enforced, the power police should or shouldn’t have. Sometimes we talk about ancient and not so ancient history – something we are both very interested in – and sometimes we get into religion and philosophy.

We generally agree on most things, but sometimes we disagree in what seem to be fairly profound ways. Usually our most vigorous disagreements are about somewhat “esoteric” things. These are what might be called “deep” philosophical questions such as “the nature of reality” or “the meaning of life”.

From my perspective what runs through these main areas of disagreement is the old philosophical bugaboo – How do you know? – what philosophers in the western tradition call epistemology or the theory of knowledge.

“You say ‘reality’ is such and such. Well, how do you know?”

“You say ‘rules’ should ultimately be considered guidelines rather than non-negotiable laws. Well, How do you know?”

Now I must admit that when I studied philosophy in school I had a fairly profound dislike for epistemology. Boring, boring, boring. A lot of our time in those introductory philosophy courses was spent on worries about the imprecision of perception. You know, some people see blue as green, so how do we know what colour the thing really is?

This always seemed pretty trivial to me. In the end, don’t we pretty much take it for granted that entry-level perception is fairly unreliable. And so doesn’t that mean that most of our conclusions about the “reality” of objects, landscapes, etc. is simply pragmatic?

When it comes to our perception of the physical world, isn’t “the nature of  reality” pretty much irrelevant to our normal day to day affairs. And isn’t that why for more technical things like building bridges and splitting atoms we use more sophisticated devices for looking at, measuring and manipulating things?

Over the intervening decades since my school days I’ve developed a much greater appreciation for epistemology. I’m still not much interested in the relationship between our perceptions and “reality”. I still don’t think it matters.

But what I am interested in is the truth-value of our social, psychological, historical, scientific, ethical, metaphysical and religious opinions. In short I am most interested in the validity of “theories” – the somewhat complicated conclusions we’ve arrived at to explain various aspects of life. 

Here are some of my own general observations about these things:

  1. No two people ever completely agree on anything.
  2. Everyone has a theory about most things, but most people don’t know what they are talking about most of the time.
  3. Most if not all “metaphysical” theories are pretty much pulled out of thin air.
  4. Most if not all religoius doctrines don’t make much sense when you divorce them from their psychological, social and political objectives.

and so on…

These things are decidely negative. Which indicates the extent to which I am skeptical of any claims about our ability to know THE TRUTH about relatively complicated theories.

Now getting back to my sometimes heated arguments with my friend about these things. There is a certain irony in our disagreements that I find quite interesting.

On the one hand my golfing buddy is much more skeptical than I am about the “truth” of so-called factual claims. I’ll say something like “There are facts that we all (or most of us) can agree on. Facts like the colour of the sky, or, in golf,  the distance to the hole (as measured by one of several electronic gadgets.) At least we seem to agree on them. If not, why do we use that measurement to decide which club to use?”

But he’s not impressed by that kind of logic. As far as I can tell, he doesn’t want to know what we can agree on. He wants to know what is really the case.

On the other hand he is much less skeptical about our ability to get to the truth about more sweeping theories about the nature of reality, the meaning of life, the truth behind the illusion. He is much more willing to give the benefit of the doubt to such theories, where I am much more inclined to dismiss them as, at best, overly speculative, or at worst, groundless wishful thinking.

Now I could be completely wrong about this, but I think this odd situation arises because my friend believes there actually is a “reality” behind the illusions of every day life, and that we can somehow get at it. This is not an unusual point of view. In fact I think most people, and perhaps most philosophers, scientists and religious thinkers would agree.

But I’m not one of them. The older I get and the more I think about it, the less this makes sense to me. For me “knowledge” isn’t about a mysterious “reality”. It is about getting things done in our day to day lives, getting from point A to point B. And that’s all.

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