How Do You Know? A Look at Knowledge

I’ve been thinking about knowledge recently.

Did you know that shape shifting lizards are living among us? Many politicians, including Hilary Clinton, George Bush and Queen Elizabeth, are actually blood-sucking aliens. (This invasion was brought to light in the 1990’s by David Icke.)

Did you know that climate change is a hoax perpetuated by the Chinese as a way of hurting the US. (Our president said so.)

Actually, I know both Icke and Trump are wrong, but how do I know? When I say I know something, what do I mean? In this day of alternative facts and outright lying how do we know what is true / real?

That is the question I’m going to explore in great and philosophical depth. I hope you stick around for it.

2014-08-26 10.12.56
glove sucking caterpillar

Here goes:

I know the sun is hot.
I know Clinton is not an alien lizard.
I know that the earth is warming.
I know 2 + 2 = 4.
I know Beta loves me.

These are different types of knowledge.
I know the sun is hot because when I sit in the sun I get warm and if I stay out too long I get a sunburn.
I know Clinton isn’t a lizard because I’m a reasonable person (at least, I like to think so).
I know climate change is real because the majority of climate scientists agree it is and show evidence ranging from the loss of Antarctic ice sheets to steadily increasing average global temperatures.
I know 2 + 2= 4 because my teacher told me so and every time I add 2 + 2 it = 4/
I know Beta loves me because she wags and wiggles from head to tail while giving high pitched yelps of joy when she sees me (and isn’t that great for the ego).


Now let’s look at each example a bit more closely, starting with how things can go wrong and what we can do to prevent that.

Our senses give us massive amounts of information each day. We take that experience and base knowledge on it. However, our senses can be wrong, or our interpretation might be off.

If I go outside on a day like today, when the sun is shining and it’s a beautiful -10 ℉, I might assume the sun is making it cold out. If I never experienced the sun that is just as reasonable as thinking the sun is making it hot when it 95℉. Fortunately, I go outside in all weather, and, yes, the sun makes it hotter (I recommend a moonlit walk when it is below zero. Beautiful. Brisk.) Repetition provides confirmation that the sun is hot.


The second example, well, the idea of shape-shifting aliens (reptilians is the official term) is ridiculous. But, then again, it’s also ridiculous to imagine an earthling who can shape shift and change color to match its surroundings – like an octopus.

Hmm, being a ridiculous idea isn’t enough. However, another reason I just can’t believe in aliens (much as I would like to) is that all the evidence for their existence is hearsay from questionable sources. Meanwhile, the evidence against their existence is pretty overwhelming.
1) No person has ever turned into a lizard (although over hundreds of millions of years it could be said that lizards turned into people, if you count the first thing that crawled from the ocean as a lizard).
2) No aliens have ever been seen (although there is hope for finding microbes on Titan).
3) While politicians change political shape with some regularity, you would think a doctor would have noticed if any of the above was a lizard in disguise.

This is a newt. Not a lizard.

On the other hand, we have massive amounts of evidence that climate change is happening. Numerous studies in a wide variety of fields have shown both cause and effect. Studies have been repeated by other scientists with similar results, leading to a global consensus among the scientific mainstream. If it was just one or two scientists, well, they could be wrong, but in this case, unless there is a major conspiracy by science and the media in general…. (an idea which, frankly, is as ridiculous as the shape shifting aliens).

Evidence against climate change is often put forward by politicians who clearly have no understanding of the issues (confusing climate and weather for instance). The scientists who argue against global warming have been refuted by their peers. That’s enough for me to trust my knowledge that climate change is real.

Third, I know 2+2=4 because it is understood. And it works. I can take 2 pebbles and then add two more and I will have 4 pebbles. I can do the same thing with muffins or kittens or houses. In fact, I can do it with everything, including abstractions like numbers. “Knowing” in math is a bit different from other knowledge because of the strictures of mathematical logic. Since I don’t know much more than 2 + 2 = 4, I’ll leave math aside for now.


Finally, there is my girl Beta. Dogs wag and wiggle when happy. Beta wags and wiggles when she sees me therefore Beta is happy to see me. Besides, what else could she be saying? Actually, since we can’t get into her head I can’t ever really know what she is thinking or feeling, so I have to go with how she has behaved in the past, how other dogs behave and what dog trainers have told me.

In case you are getting lost, we have now looked at several different ways of knowing things, each of which has its drawbacks. Our senses can be wrong, our sources can be wrong, our understanding can be wrong. With so much information at our fingertips we need to be careful.

The moral of the story is that it’s not safe to take things on face value. Rather, if you want to have confirmation, look at your ideas different ways. Think about the source, compare with your own experience and also look at what the science says. Despite it’s reputation, science can and does give us huge amounts of knowledge about the world in which we live.

Stay tuned for more science…..

home made solar filter for camera

Thanks for reading,

Jan 1, 2018

If you enjoyed this post you might also enjoy:

Climate vs Weather: A Response to Willful Ignorance.

A Case for Curiosity

A Question of Time

Is Math Broken? The Problem of Infinity.

A Pair of (unrelated) Poems


3 thoughts on “How Do You Know? A Look at Knowledge

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s