Thursday, October 4, 2012

What Is Knowledge?

Philosopher Paul Pardi gives an easy-to-understand overview of some of the problems of epistemology in an essay at Philosophy News. He begins with this:
Studying knowledge is something philosophers have been doing for as long as philosophy has been around. It’s one of those perennial topics—like the nature of matter in the hard sciences--that philosophy has been refining since before the time of Plato.

The discipline is known as epistemology which comes from two Greek words episteme which means knowledge and logos which means a word or reason. Epistemology literally means to reason about knowledge. Epistemologists study what makes up knowledge, what kinds of things can we know, what are the limits to what we can know, and even if it’s possible to actually know anything at all.

At first this might seem like one of those topics that gives philosophy a bad name. After all, it seems kind of silly to ask whether we can know anything since is obvious we do. It's even more silly when you consider that to even ask the question, you must assume you know something! So why have some of the greatest minds the world has ever produced spent such a great deal of time on the subject?

In order to answer that question, you probably have to have some idea what the term “know” means. If I asked, “Have you seen the flibbertijibbet at the fair today?” I’d guess you wouldn’t know how to answer. You’d probably ask me what a flibbertijibbet is. But most adults tend not to ask what knowledge is before they can evaluate whether they have it or not. We just claim to know stuff and most of us, I suspect, are pretty comfortable with that. There are lots of reasons for this but the most likely is that we have picked up a definition over time and have a general sense of what the term means. Many of us would probably say knowledge that something is true involves:
  • Certainty – it's hard if not impossible to deny
  • Evidence – it has to based on something
  • Practicality – it has to actually work in the real world
  • Broad agreement – lots of people have to agree it's true
But if you think about it, each of these has problems. For example, what would you claim to know that you would also say you are certain of? Let’s suppose you’re not intoxicated, high, or in some other way in your “right” mind and conclude that you know there is a computer in front of you. You might go further and claim that denying it would be crazy, but isn’t it at least possible that you’re dreaming or that you’re in something like the Matrix and everything you see is an illusion?

Before you say such a thing is absurd and only those who were unable to make the varsity football team would even consider such questions, can you be sure you’re not being tricked? After all, if you are in the Matrix, the robots that created the Matrix would be making you believe you are not in the Matrix and that you’re certain you aren’t.
Pardi has many more interesting things to say about the questions addressed by epistemologists in his article at the link. Check it out.

Extreme Deep Field

The pic below was featured at the Hubble Space Telescope website. Here's what the Hubble folks said about it:
Like photographers assembling a portfolio of best shots, astronomers have assembled a new, improved portrait of mankind's deepest-ever view of the universe. Called the eXtreme Deep Field, or XDF, the photo was assembled by combining 10 years of NASA Hubble Space Telescope photographs taken of a patch of sky at the center of the original Hubble Ultra Deep Field. The XDF is a small fraction of the angular diameter of the full Moon.

The XDF contains about 5,500 galaxies even within its smaller field of view. The faintest galaxies are one ten-billionth the brightness of what the human eye can see.
Each of these galaxies contains billions of stars. If we could see them more closely many of them would look like this:
Photos like the Extreme Deep Field pic sometimes raise theological questions. For example, if God created the universe why was he so extravagant? Why so many galaxies? Why is the universe so big? Why is it so old?

No one knows the answers for sure, of course, but I think we can take a pretty good guess.

If God created the universe in order for us to inhabit it, and if he chose to bring it into being the way cosmologists believe it came into being - in a huge explosion ex nihilo(the Big Bang) - then it has to be as old as it is and as big as it is for us to be here. Here's why:

Following the initial explosion the universe would have been nothing but energy. As it cooled the energy formed hydrogen which gradually coalesced into stars which produced heavier elements in their cores in the process of nuclear fusion. Eventually these stars exploded and spewed these heavy elements into space. These elements were later captured around stars like the sun and coagulated into spheres (planets).

This whole process by which the universe got to the point where the elements necessary for life could form and where life could be supported took billions of years all during which the universe was rapidly expanding. Thus, given that God may have chosen to create the universe in this way, the universe has to be as old as it is and therefore as big as it is.

It could well be the case that all of it, in its incomprehensible immensity, exists simply so that we can. If so, then the universe really would be anthropocentric. We really would be the point, or center, of the whole thing.