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How Do We Know What We Know

October 5, 2010

Socrates brought about the issue of the public sphere versus the private sphere of life.  Each represents a different set of values.  In the public sphere life is based on what the public decides is good and just.  In the private sphere, the pursuit of happiness is what makes life worth living and truth is the only standard of justice.  Therefore, the search for happiness is the search for truth.

The ultimate combination is a balance between the two spheres.  Too much questioning can lead to anarchy, and too little questioning results in laws that are not just.  An example of this is the United States during the period of slavery.  People didn’t question the laws of the country, and therefore, something as horrible as slavery was permitted in the United States.

Both spheres require humans to pass judgment on what they know and decide whether it is right or wrong. Truth or not truth.  My question is, how can we be trusted with such responsibility?  How do we know that what we currently hold to be true, is actually true?

I read a book called Benito Cereno by Herman Melville several years ago where Captain Delano boards a Spanish merchant ship that has been overtaken by its slaves who are merely putting on an act to fool Captain Delano into thinking that Benito Cereno, the captain who was overthrown, is still in power.  All signs point to the fact that the ship is actually run by the black slaves, but because Delano is a racist, he cannot fathom that a revolt is possible, and completely misinterprets the situation.  To answer the question from before asking, how do we know what we currently hold to be true, is actually true, is, we don’t.  Delano believed that blacks were incapable of running a ship, and being in power.  He was wrong, but was unable to recognize himself that what he held to be true, was in fact false.

In order to counter Delano’s belief and convince him that blacks were not an inferior race, Delano had to experience a situation that went against his moral beliefs.  We don’t know that what we know to be true is actually true, but we can refine our beliefs to better align with the truth by testing what we know to be true.  Unfortunately, this is very difficult because we often don’t know what to question.  What we hold to be true seems so natural to us, that we wouldn’t consider questioning its validity.  Not to mention, if what we held to be true was proved false, it would most likely severely upset the balance of our lives.

So how do we approach this problem? We can either live where our lives are based on truths that are actually not true, or we deal with the trauma caused from truths being proven false.  In my opinion, it is better to refine our lives so that they are more aligned with truth and face the shock of being told that we were wrong.  It certainly is a more risky route, but end will justify the means.

  1. Lorig Stepanian permalink
    October 5, 2010 4:55 PM

    I agree with this article. It is very hard for people to question what they believe is true, because it is so established within their identity that it is difficult for them to realize the potential of that belief to be false. In addition if this belief is mutually accepted by many others, it becomes even more difficult for one to recognize if it causes them to be ignorant or unjust. In order for people to realize that some of their values are untrue or unjust then they must keep an open mind to new ideas and accept them even if they shake the very foundations that their perception of the world is based on. Unfortunately this is much easier said than done; however, throughout ones lifetime, he or she will be exposed to many new ideas and theories which will help them establish their particular methods to treat and interact with other people.

  2. Deepa permalink
    October 10, 2010 11:37 PM

    How does one determine what they know? In Plato’s Apology, Socrates says “I do not think I know what I do not know.” This is a reoccuring theme within The Trial and Death of Socrates. Socrates goes to various members of the community and determines that he is wiser than they because of this very reason. However, how do we know that Socrates actually knows what he thinks that he knows? He easily determines that others do not know what they think that they know because he believes he is looking at it from an objective standpoint. He fails to address that he has a bias. If Socrates himself cannot determine what he knows, to what extent is he a reliable source of wisdom?

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