In this age of fake news, conspiracy theories, and denial of science, we rarely step back and analyze the process by which we construct our beliefs. The smarter ones among us know that as a minimal starting point, we must be capable of understanding the difference between opinions and facts, even if a lot of what we would like to think of as “facts” aren’t exactly so. In fact, practically the entire body of knowledge of the social sciences and humanities are closer to opinions than they are of facts since they are not consistently replicable; for many of the humanities disciplines they are not even meant to be so. How do we know that anything we know is true? The basic premise of truth is that of a proposition needs to correspond to a fact. As Aristotle stated over two thousand years earlier, “to say of what is that it is not, or of what is not that it is, is false, while to say of what is that it is, and of what is not that it is not, is true”. However, how do we know that these facts are true? Could we exist in a truth-less universe?
This is not the plot of a future episode of Black Mirror. We’re living in it already.
The only thing you know
There is only one truth in this universe that we can believe in without equivocation: that we exist, even if in what form we exist remains unknown. We all conceive of ourselves as human beings, an evolved carbon-based life form with a sense of consciousness but it is not an exaggeration to think that we might be bits of software code inhabiting some alien Matrix-like simulation. Yet the fact that we are able to understand our own existence is true. The only truth. And even assuming we have no free will at all, that every single aspect of our life has been scripted either by a divine being or that same alien simulation, we are still able to know we exist even if we are not in control of our own existence. Note that this not quite the same as Descartes’ famous statement of cogito ergo sum (“I think therefore I am”). You can actually not think and still be aware of your own existence much the same way as microscopic organisms without a central nervous system actively avoid getting killed, that is, losing their existence. Continue reading