How to know that you know nothing

Our lives are dominated by beliefs and faith, not truth and facts

The Thinker

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.

If follows that we must remain agnostic to greater or lesser extent about everything else that we claim to know, even scientific knowledge which to most people is analogous to objective truth. For starters, most people are dismally ignorant about how the world works. Most people do not know what the formula for gravity is, or what E=mc squared actually stands for. You can think that the theory of evolution is “true” and have a general understanding of what it is, but certainly you could not give a university seminar on the chemical properties of DNA replication. In fact, not even all biologists will have full expertise on this, only the ones who specialize in this particular sub-field of biology. Furthermore, the expert evolutionary biologists who do have this expertise will not know nearly enough about anything else: they will not know the basic engineering formulas that prevent the building they work in from collapsing. They do not the causes of inflation that is driving up the price of the lab equipment they buy. They will not know a single line of the code used to assemble the lab software that they use on a daily basis. It is humbling to know that you may be a leading expert on your field, but you probably don’t know nearly enough about how most things around you actually work.

And yet you thought you “knew” these things because you had a reasonable belief that the people who do have this knowledge are behaving in good faith. It is a reasonable belief because the worldview needed to justify this belief makes more sense than the one needed to deny it. So for example, we understand that most scientific discoveries arise through the use of the scientific method which involves careful observation, measurement, and experiment. Furthermore, we understand that the scientific community does not have the same perverse incentives as say, politicians or economists, towards holding on to knowingly false ideas or ideologies: science progresses by debunking itself and so nothing is sacred. This in fact, is the best evidence that even scientific knowledge are not “truths” in the strict sense of the word. Fifty years ago our knowledge of how an atom looks like would have been vastly different of how we “know” it to be now. What is the guarantee that our current model of the atom will survive another fifty years? Still, at this point in history we believe our current model of the atom because our faith in science is a reasonable one. To imagine a conspiracy of all scientists to deliberately mislead us about the correct model of the atom would cause some serious intellectual consistency problems that no reasonable person would bother with.

Our faith is everything

“Belief (noun): Something one accepts as true or real; a firmly held opinion.

Faith (noun): Complete trust or confidence in someone or something.”

It is regrettable that the English language does not differentiate between beliefs and faiths that are obtained reasonably and those which are obtain unreasonably, that is, through motivated reasoning (when we have a personal, intellectual, or emotional stake in the outcome of said belief), illogicality, irrationality, stupidity, or ignorance. The semantic use of the terms is identical. But it should be clear to most people that it not the same to have “faith” in science in the way one has faith in a religious deity; the method by which scientific beliefs are obtained is far more intellectually robust than the belief in a supposed holy book written in previous millennia. Our faith in science is rooted in trust, an element lacking in religious belief. We trust vaccines because we no longer know people who died of communicable diseases that our grandparents were probably terrified of. There is also a payoff to this trust. Proof that most people actually know their religious beliefs to be untrue is that only the most radical ones (like the ironically named Christian Scientists) would forego chemotherapy for prayer to cure their cancers.

There is an additional complication in that most major beliefs are complex: they depend on other, lower order beliefs, to be true. This, again, is a point in favor of science: higher order beliefs (like evolution) are obtained only after lower order ones have some reasonable evidence in their favor. Whether the process is deductive or inductive is irrelevant: when sufficient lower order beliefs are confirmed through observation we can claim the grander narrative that synthesizes these beliefs is accurate (induction); likewise, we can’t hypothesize a grand narrative if our subsequent observations fail to confirm it (deduction). An easy way to tell if a complex belief is bullshit is if we have to deny reasonable lower order beliefs in order to justify the higher order one. This is why conspiracy theories are so intellectually feeble: to believe the grand narrative that the Earth is flat, or that 9/11 was an inside job, or that the world is controlled by a Zionist cabal, one has to selectively negate all the other obvious beliefs that would undermine them. Like for example, the process of planet formation that somehow produced round planets everywhere except here on Earth, the physical properties of the material that the WTC was built on, or that most of the world’s richest and powerful people aren’t in fact Jews. In the case of conspiracy theory, being skeptical about everything produces an identical degree of idiocy than being naive about everything.

Which is why the idea that nothing is true except our own existence needs to be rephrased so that it becomes more than just a rehash of basic solipsism. It is highly likely that most of what we perceive of reality is actually true in some sense, and that science is at the very least, a path to truth. So even though our older models of the atom may not have reflected reality, they were a step towards understanding it. Where do we draw the line in what we believe and what we don’t believe? There is no answer to this. There is no threshold of probability after which we can say that a belief is true or not. We can only use reason to assure ourselves that what we believe in has a sufficiently high chance of being true.

The method is more important than the truth

And now, a final, shocking revelation: reasonable beliefs need not be truthful to be reasonable. Using a day-to-day analogy, imagine that today you need to go to the bank. To get to the bank you would likely check your smartphone’s map app but perhaps the bank branch closed only yesterday and the map software has not been updated since. Your faith in the map app’s accuracy failed you, but you had reason to believe it since it had been correct on previous occasions. On the other hand, you could have followed a stray dog that just so happened to walk in the direction of the actual bank branch. Could you hypothesize that following stray dogs is a more accurate method for reaching a destination than a map app? Of course not. For the grand majority of people in the grand majority of circumstances, the phone app will get you to your destination better than stray dog even if it is possible (albeit unlikely) that for at least one statistical outlier the stray dog may always be a better guide than the map app.

In conclusion: you should care more about how you construct your beliefs than about their truthfulness. Because ultimately, we don’t really know things to be true, we simply believe them to be. Although we would like to think otherwise, all our worldviews are built on faith, not facts. Ultimately, true wisdom is knowing that it’s better to be wrong for all the right reasons than to be right for all the wrong ones. How we believe will always be more important than what we believe in.

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