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Measure for Measure

Sanstorm’s Cosmic Envelopes and the Subjectivity of Knowledge

Yesterday raised the question of knowledge.

Just as morpheus offered Neo a trip to the bottom of the rabbit hole, who is to say there wasn’t another rabbit hole and Morpheus was all in Neo’s mind?

Or that Neo had a mind…

(…I’m so glad movies are fictional.)

But as for knowledge, I think that it is largely an illusion.

I know the world is round. Spherical-ish, anyway. Not flat.

I know this.

However, a few hundred years ago, my ancestors knew the world WAS flat.

A-ha, you say- they THOUGHT the earth was flat. We KNOW it is round because science has proved it.

But, from the point of view of my ancestor- they knew what they knew. (except they were just thinking, not knowing).

It is the truth or falsity of an assertion that differentiates between belief and knowledge.

In other words: what makes knowledge knowledge is truth. If something is true, and someone believes it, it is knowledge. If something is false, and someone believes it, it is belief.

But if you believe something, you surely must necessarily believe that there is a truth there to turn your belief into knowledge.

But knowledge is therefore subjective. It is, almost, only lucky: if your beliefs happen to coincide with reality.

So, to the cosmic envelopes:
Imagine there are metaphorical cosmic envelopes. Inside each one are the beliefs of individuals.

There is a separate beast of an envelope. Contained within is the truth.

Only where the believer’s envelope tallies with the Truth envelope can there be said to be any knowledge.

I’ll leave it there…


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18 thoughts on “Sanstorm’s Cosmic Envelopes and the Subjectivity of Knowledge

  1. ‘A thousand years ago we thought the world was a bowl,’ he said. ‘Five hundred years ago we knew it was a globe. Today we know it is flat and round and carried through space on the back of a turtle.’ He turned and gave the High Priest another smile. ‘Don’t you wonder what shape it will turn out to be tomorrow?
    Terry Pratchett – The Truth.

  2. Fascinating discussion.

  3. As I said yesterday I think you should quest for understanding rather than truth. The nature of the Universe is such that there can be no fundamental Truth. All one can do is to try to understand as much about it as possible which means that you have to gather empirical data. You can believe what you like but unless you are dealing in what can be observed and tested (and repeated) then belief certainly does not equate with knowledge. Scientists shouldn’t deal with beliefs in their quest for understanding. There is your current hypothesis which may then either be confirmed, modified or rejected according to the data one gathers over time. I think that’s prefereable to dealing with beliefs, it’s perfectly legitimate to change one’s mind, it’s usually fun to be provfen wrong and there is always something new to learn.

    Which isn’t to say that belief isn’t *powerful*, take Homeopathy, people can say that they *know* that it is the homeopathic treatment that makes them feel better but since it is too dilute for there to be any active ingredients present something else is clearly at work. In this case I guess it would be the belief that it works that activates the Placebo Effect which is a very complex and fascinating area all on its own. If you want to delve into the freaky physical effects of belief I advise checking it out.

    • Yes, I like your understanding-rather-than-truth idea, but I still hold to the contents of the cosmic envelope marked “truth”.

      And people always believe that the last thing they tried cured them. Same as how the thing you lost is found in the last place you look…

  4. You won’t convince me that such an envelope exists or even that it can exist. I’m not going to live long enough to know all the things I want to know or experience all the things I want to experience, I’m never going to get all the answers and goodness me things would be dull if I did. All I can do is as much as I can and enjoy the ride.

    But you really should check out the Placebo effect, it’s super weird and very powerful, would appeal to your philosophical nature. Ben Goldacre is a good place to start.

    • Carpe Diem! I quite agree.
      (And I don’t think I am going to live long enough to know all the things I want to know or experience all the things I want to experience either.)

  5. Your post is so relevant to what is going on in our political life in the states. Democrats pitted against republicans. Knowledge versus hard core beliefs. You captured the dynamic between the two very well. As usual.

    • Thanks – although I can’t claim to have much of a grasp of US politics.
      Here we have many parties/sides in politics so there is a lot of dialogue and coalition/compromise.
      A “good thing”, probably.

  6. Belief is knowing something that isn’t actually true, while knowledge is knowing something that is true? Not for me. On this one, my own point of view is much closer to Cat’s.

    If I understand what you (ie Sanstorm) are saying, one cannot ever tell the difference between one’s beliefs and one’s knowledge. We have no way of testing the validity of either. They both seem equally certain.

    For myself, I call knowledge those things for which I have strong evidence. This does not necessarily mean I believe I have the Truth, because new evidence or new interpretations of old evidence will often change my conclusions. Like the flat earth. For tens of thousands of years, empirical evidence that the earth is flat was overwhelming. Now we “know” it is round because we can see it from outer space, because we can sail around it, and because Newton’s theory of gravity explains why things don’t fall off the earth or out of the sky. But it is not absolutely impossible that at some time in the future, some new Newton, some new Galileo or Einstein will look at everything we know and convince us that earth is actually the shape of a straight piece of string or curled around like a spiral.

    On the other hand, what I call belief are conclusions and values by which a person is willing to live but for which they do not have overwhelmingly strong evidence with which to convince others. Believing in God or life after death would belong in the category of belief, or that love is better than hate, that I am happier if I try to live with integrity, or that my husband loves me, or that Picasso and Beethoven were great artists. Beliefs often make sense, and are central in a person’s life but like knowledge, they also carry the potential for being wrong.


    PS – When you said you were going to write a post on the subjectivity of knowledge, I thought it was going to be about the impossibility of any of us escaping from the reality presented to us by our private consciousness. That others confirm whether they are experiencing the same thing is the scientific way out of this closed world of our consciousness, but even confirmation from others is not lead to cast iron certainty. Whole groups of people have been know to be mistaken in their interpretations of what they experience (including groups of scientists). In fact, groups are sometimes actually delusional. So getting everybody to agree with me doesn’t, unfortunately make me right. Though it may make me psychologically more comfortable.

    • I very much like the idea that belief is what you are willing to live by.

      I did consider going town the “12 million people can’t be wrong – oh yes they can” route. As Winston Smith in 1984 noted “being in a minority of one does not make you mad”.

      And yes, there is little point wondering whether or not this is all real. It is all we have to go on.

      Carpe Diem.

  7. How do we access the envelope marked “truth”? How can we verify it’s contents?
    Also, loving this discussion.

    • We can’t!
      (But secretly you know what you think is in it. You just have to bear in mind that pretty much no one else agrees. And what are the chances of you being right? Or them? Or any one person?)

      Next post about to be written…

    • Actually, haud on there – I thought you were taking the blue pill?
      Does this mean you want to take the red one now and see how far the rabbit hole goes?

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