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When 'knowing' is dangerous


About Philosophically

I think, therefore I am.


Nothing starts more conflict than people ''knowing'' stuff.

Each week I have a number of conversations with people -- some smart, others not so much -- who ''know'' things. These people very often argue with certainty, but often without the evidence that would warrant it. In their minds, they're convinced they ''know''.

And we all know one or three of them.

They are the ones who ''know'' that Lindy Chamberlain killed her baby, when they only have access to a fraction of the evidence. They ''know'' that the football coach made the wrong decision, despite never having played the game. Some ''know'' that the Prime Minister is lying, despite him having more information than they have. And there are the ones who ''know’'' that Ford is superior to Holden, yet have no relevant expertise or understanding of the specifications of each vehicle.

To know is to have knowledge. The Oxford Dictionary defines knowledge as: ''Facts, information, and skills acquired through experience or education.''

The key word here is facts, which the same dictionary defines as: ''A thing that is known or proved to be true.'' The key word here is proved, which involves the application of compelling evidence and, on most occasions, we humans simply don't have access to that evidence.

We invariably rely on our senses and intuitive interpretation of what those senses tell us. But, as you can watch in the TEDx talk below, that is far from reliable. Neither our senses nor our brains are reliable at interpreting data.

Seeing the world as it isn't | Daniel Simons | TEDxUIUC


This is nothing new. In the 1600s, mathematician and philosopher Descartes concluded that the only thing any of us could know was that we existed.

He coined the phrase ''cogito ergo sum'', which means ''I think, therefore I am’'' The idea is that everything we see, hear, feel, smell, touch and read may well be an illusion and we have no way of knowing if it is or not.

The only thing we can ever know is that we exist, and we only know that because we are thinking -- and how can we think if we don't exist?

Importantly, a number of philosophers since Descartes also question if we can know we exist, but that is a debate for another day. Suffice to say that knowledge is a very scarce commodity.

So why is this important enough to write about here? 

I believe this is a very important debate to have, because nothing has launched and fed more conflict than people ''knowing'' stuff.

Many a war has started because followers of one religion ''know'' they are right and others are wrong. Many a dispute has started because one group ''knows'' their view of the world is right and others are wrong. Many a fight in parliament has started because the opposition ''know'' they are right and the government is wrong. Many a divorce has started with one half ''knowing'' that something is true when it isn't.

The fact is, knowledge is very elusive.

My view is that the world would be better off if we could embrace the fact that we all have, at best,  a hypothesis and at worst, an idea, belief or view.

We would all be better off if we remained open to the possibility that we might be wrong and the other side right. Like scientists, we should be just as willing to prove ourselves wrong as we do right.

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