how do you know what you know?

7 05 2009

Have you ever wondered how many facts you “know” that you have never seen proof for?  There are a LOT of things we are taught in schools that we accept as true without ever seeing any amount of proof.  Of course, we have scientists and researchers who conduct studies to figure out what is true, and they then report it to us.  But how do we know what they are saying is true?

My point in this is not to get you to doubt everything — because some of what we’re taught is true — but I want you to consider how much faith you put in other people to validate what you believe is true about the world.  I’m sure we can think of examples where “facts” were incorrectly taught, such as that the Earth is flat, that the Earth is the center of the universe and everything revolved around it, and how old the universe is (which has changed several times since I started school).  Are there “facts” being taught today that are not accurate?

I started thinking about this after reading an article called “On Some Epistemic Pathologies, or Why the Human Mind is a Terrarium for So Many Lies“.   This was my first visit to this blog, so I don’t know anything about the authors, but a few articles gave me some things to think about.  This particular article started out mentioning some historical events that some people don’t believe in, such as the Moon landing, William Shakespeare writing the works he’s famous for, the Twin Towers being destroyed by terrorists on 9/11, the existence of Jesus Christ, and the Holocaust.   There’s proof that all these things happened, yet there are people who believe some of them never happened.

The article doesn’t offer proof of those events — that can be found elsewhere — but it does discuss why people might choose to not believe in them (from a sociological point-of-view).  It also discusses why most people tend to believe research studies, even though it’s been proven that some are wrong.  (I once read that something like 1/3 of medical research is proven wrong within a year or two of its release.  Thinking of all the claims I’ve heard about whether eggs are healthy for you or not, I’m inclined to believe that number.)  Before I ramble too much (if I haven’t already), let me quote a part of that article for your convenience (because if you think this post is long, then the linked one may overwhelm you):

Leaving aside questions of outright fraud, media gullibility, and PR spin, the lay public must also now take on faith (no other word will do) some very counterintuitive claims by honest scientists, such as the wave/particle duality in the behavior of light, the constancy of the speed of light, the relativity of the contraction or expansion of spacetime according to the speed of the observer, and the origin of the universe in a “singularity” that was at one time, roughly fourteen billion years ago, infinitely dense and infinitely small.  If the lay citizen — a resident of the Show Me State of Missouri, for example — were to demand irrefutable evidence for any of these assertions, how could he be answered?  But the problem goes deeper than the suspicion that science has turned the universe into a vast Ripley’s Believe It or Not Museum.  The real problem is that almost all of what people claim they know — and not just the esoterica of science — must be taken on faith, from the number of planets in the solar system (who, by the way, demoted Pluto from the pantheon of planets, and on what grounds?) to the age of the earth and the chemical composition of water. ~ Edward T. Oakes, S.J.

Think about how many things you accept as true but have never seen proof for.  (Feel free to pause reading for a few minutes to let your mind ponder that.  Continue when ready.)  🙂  I’m going to mention a few things here, for your future thinking and/or discussion.

* politics — When we hear politicians make claims about their values, do we check if they are speaking in accordance with how they actually vote?  This is also important for claims they make of other candidates — they do lie.  In fact, in the 2008 Presidential campaign, both Barack Obama and John McCain were caught lying in their own TV ads in the same week.  So it’s known that politicians lie.  But do we have any idea how often they do and how often we believe their lies?

* Global Warming — This is an issue that has scientific facts which supposedly support both sides on whether it’s occurring now and whether it’s man-made.   Yet there is a lot of disagreement, and there are respected scientists on each side.   How do you know who is right?  Do you actually look at facts and research from both sides?  If not, how do you choose who to believe?

* faith / religion — This is the biggest issue.  Why do you believe what you believe?  Obviously this question is huge and we could discuss it for a LONG time, so this is just an intro to it.  Some people believe what their parents told them to believe, which has led to many believing in false religions.  Some people believe what seems right to them or what is most convenient for their lifestyle.  Some people make up their own beliefs and call it Christianity (or some other religion).  Obviously some faith is required, but we should also have some proof — that is, actual encounters with God — which lines up with the Word of God (the Bible).  We must be careful to not blindly follow others, because even some well-meaning people teach false doctrine sometimes.  But the truth is out there, and God wants you to find it.  (I discuss this more thoroughly in other parts of my blog, so I’ll stop here now.)

I could go on, but more examples are left as an exercise for the reader — that’s you.  🙂  You’re welcome to share your thoughts in a comment.