How Can We Know What are the Limits of Our Knowledge?

 In Building Knowledge

We have all had the feeling of thinking that we knew something and even feeling a sense of certainty about it, but then later coming to realize that we were wrong, that thing we thought we knew turned out to not be the case, and that our smug sense of certainty was unjustified. Maybe there is a statue of a celebrated historical figure that we would pass by from time to time, believing that this person had impeccable virtues and who fought for our cherished cultural ideals. What do we react if evidence comes to light about this person’s dark side? It can be devastating to come to find out that a folk hero or “founding father” had owned humans as slaves or had committed atrocities against people of other ethnic groups or had sexually abused women and children.

A lot of us have come to realize that the world isn’t as simple nor as clear as we might have thought or might have been led to believe at earlier points in our lives. As it turns out, the world is extremely complicated, messy, murky, and our stories of the past are probably full of myths. As we become more humble in our approach to understanding the world, some of us might begin to question just about anything that we thought we knew, since it all might be bunk as well. So what can we know? A person who doubts that they know anything is being skeptical. Likewise, a person who asserts that we can’t really know anything or that we can’t know much is also being skeptical, but in a different way.

Skepticism is a very important concept in epistemology, which is the philosophical branch that deals with knowledge and certainty, and it comes in different forms. In general, skepticism refers to a questioning attitude and having doubt regarding ideas that are often taken for granted. There are countless areas of inquiry in which some people will try to assert knowledge and try to explain their reasons for believing this or that. One can apply a skeptical argument so as to cast doubt upon any such positive assertions. Skeptical arguments help us to understand that life is not as certain as we would often like to think.

There are two main forms of skeptical arguments. The first form of skepticism involves arguments that give reasons why one should withhold judgment in certain circumstances. These arguments are often in the form of “It is difficult to see how, given those methods of observation and those assumptions, one could reasonably come to that conclusion” or something along those lines. For example, if one person were asserting that they fully understand a certain historical figure’s motivations for acting as they did, another person could ask how it is possible for anyone to know what thoughts might have been going on in someone’s mind who is long since dead. How can anyone come to know the motivations for someone who lived long ago and nobody living today ever knew them alive? It is hard enough to do this for anyone living today, even if one has been acquainted with them for some time. Arguments of this form take after the Ancient Greek school of Pyrrhonian skepticism, which emphasized listening to all arguments and withholding judgment. I want to offer that we could refer to arguments of this form as “doubt-skepticism”.

The second form of skepticism takes the form of assertions that our knowledge is inherently limited in certain ways. These are arguments that certain types of knowledge are simply impossible. So rather than merely giving reasons why some knowledge might not be possible, these arguments positively assert that certain things are outside the range of possible knowledge. For example, in response to a similar argument from above, perhaps in which a history professor says that he knows why Franklin Roosevelt ordered the atom bomb dropped on Japan, one could respond with a skeptical argument of this form by saying that it is not possible for anyone to ever know why someone who is no longer living acted as they did. One could even go further and say that it is impossible to understand the motivations of still living people. Saying something like “We can never know why people act as they do” is a skeptical argument of this form. Some commentators say that this form of argument was popularized by another school of Ancient Greece: the Academics. We can refer to arguments of this form as “constraint-skepticism” because they argued that the development of our knowledge is constrained in certain ways.

In many situations, doubt-skepticism is quite reasonable, and arguments of this form often help us to realize that building solid knowledge is more difficult than we would naively like to think. Our minds seem to be lazy at times and we will often just accept flimsy claims as fact or rush to judgment without giving a lot of thought for why or why not we should believe these things. Doubt-skepticism is often quite reasonable for anyone who lives in a world where there is much uncertainty and where appearances can be misleading. On the other hand, constraint-skeptical arguments go much further in application and are used more often than is justified. This is because the one who makes such an assertion would have to have a way of knowing the constraints of certain types of knowledge. But then we could use a doubt-skeptical type of argument and ask how one could come to know such constraints. We can find many examples from ages ago of people who asserted that it is impossible to know things that we now have the ability to ascertain, such as how big the sun is or how life begins or why earthquakes occur. Modern science has given us the ability to answer these questions pretty well. And so, we can see that these constraint-skeptical arguments turned out to be incorrect. For most or perhaps all constraint-skeptical arguments, we can say that our knowledge might only temporarily be constrained, but that we might be able to break these constraints with the right innovation and/or technological advancement.

In conclusion, we can say that doubt-skepticism is reasonable and helpful to us while constraint-skepticism is often unjustifiably pessimistic with regard to the possibility of knowledge. Life is full of illusions and it is very difficult to sort out fact from fiction in this complex world. It takes emotional maturity to admit that we know less than we previously thought we did. It is not healthy to pretend that we have certainty about what happened in the past, how things work in the world today, and what is going to happen in the future. At the same time, we obviously have some knowledge of these things, and it would be irrational to say that it is simply impossible to know these things. Our knowledge probably is limited in certain ways, but it is extremely difficult to really know the ways in which we cannot know things. As such, in most cases, it is probably best to simply apply a certain degree of doubt, but also a degree of measured optimism that perhaps more things could be known at some point in the future with the appropriate scientific advancements.

What theory of knowledge makes the most sense to you? Let your voice be heard in the forum.

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