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Question of the Month

How Can I Know Anything At All?

We start this new column with the question which plausibly must be answered before we can answer any other question.

The following answers to this central philosophical question each win a random book. (The order of the answers is not significant.)

How can I know (perceive with certainty) anything at all?

My first triumphant answer is that I can’t; gloriously confirmed by studies of philosophy, especially of David Hume.

Without the possibility of knowledge, I am left with belief: belief about all things, material or abstract. Belief about everything I chose to accept as valid; that this table is real, what scientists tell me, ideas, religions, our amazing planet and its people. There is a beautiful democracy in unknowing.

Except I do have trouble with ‘the real world’. I cannot trust material objects to stay where I believe them to be (my pens for example), and I also have difficulty with with the limitations of man-made systems like mathematics and logic. How is it that every mother is the best mother?

Of course, my dreamy existence relies on the (false?) sense of reality most of us have. I admire people who can control things, make calculations, build aeroplanes... Their manipulations seem to work. How is this possible?

One answer could lie in William James’ pragmatism: “If it is useful it is true”, or Richard Rorty’s variant: “Making and taking as true.” But by assuming that objects are real and making use of them, with positive results, are we thereby proving the reality of these objects? Perhaps this is how I can know that the words in my head at least relate to something out there.

Annabel Greaves,

Chichester, Sussex.

For some, to ‘know’ is simply to believe; but for those of us who cannot be doing with the idea of drip-fed revelation, there is the problem of reconciling two seemingly irreconcilable notions. The first notion is that in the broadest sense we cannot know anything. This follows from the fact [fact? – Ed] that we have no fixed point of reference, but are locked within our own minds and ambiguous language. Having no self-regulating authority or control, we are incapable of objectivity. Having sensory systems that are limited and unreliable (a different set of senses would reveal a different world), and being in a state of continual change as observers of a changing universe, the possibility of knowledge-as-certainty seems slight.

I am further aware that little of what I know has been discovered by myself, and have to accept the hazzards of misinformation, mistranslation, expediency and prejudice, as well as my personal limitations. I am also aware that, in spite of their imperfections, by use of the various methods available to us – logical reasoning, intuition, empirical study – there has accumulated a body of knowledge-as-reliable-fact that does work for us, that does go beyond the mundane, and that has the feeling of universality. The periodic table is a good example. And presumably H2O is H2O anywhere in the universe. The system of wavelengths seems to give order to our ideas of light and other forms of energy; and there exists the beautiful mathematics of repeatable cosmic journeys.

So how do I bring these ideas together?

We seem to be the end result of a small organic phenomenon in an inorganic universe, having the characteristic of aware-mindedness. The ‘lesser’ creatures know things, but we know that we know – or mostly that we don’t! We have the facility for sustained curiosity, the mysterious ability to examine our own minds, and we have memory and the ability to inherit instinctual knowledge. But beyond all this we are able to discern harmony and harmonic systems. We can spot the accidental note, and are disturbed by discord.

Could it be that to the extent that our findings have harmony and resonance with the subject of our search, we can say that we have knowledge of it – knowledge defined as conclusion-without-delusion? Thus knowledge would be recognisable to us by absence of dissonance in our ideas. This is mind working on the matter from which it was formed, having recognition of it, setting up a fragile continuum whose motions and dimensions increase with ever-increasing recognition of its source.

S. R. Griffiths

Bridport, Dorset.

How do we gain knowledge, including both empirical and a priori [not experience-based] forms of knowledge?

The most obvious starting point of this subject is to address the question in mind: ‘How can I know anything at all?’ To able to ask such a question requires that there is something to know. To be committed to unmitigated scepticism is to allow a contradiction to be entertained: Asserting that knowledge is not possible is stating implicitly that something can be known in the very denial of the possibility of knowledge, ie asserting that scepticism is valid. It amounts to a self-refutation of one’s position.

To know anything at all is to go through a process of a series of experiences which grow from an opinion, to a belief about it, and finally to justified knowledge. One can have an opinion that a particular event happened, but can’t lay claim to certain knowledge unless this knowledge can be justified. As the event is tested, knowledge about it attains greater certainty. This is true in particular about empirical knowledge, where claims made about certain events can indeed be tested.

A priori knowledge by its nature is not acquired in the same manner as empirical knowledge. In this case, it is a matter of reasoning through an idea to establish its truthfulness. We observe that the sun is round; but by the very definition of ‘round’ we can come to the conclusion that round objects have no sides: thus, objects that have sides cannot be classified as round. A priori knowledge can also be used to reason out other truths that are not connected with observation at all.

Larry Behrendt

Ewing, NJ

Edward De Bono conjectured that art works were answers to questions asked by artists on an unconscious level, and that they later rationalised back to what the questions had been. I don’t know if I’ve ever read a totally clear statement by an artist about what he or she thought they were doing, although I have read some intriguing texts. Therefore set out below is my rationalisation of why I suspect that one cannot ask the question posed. My rationalisation is written in standard ‘art-speak’, which is basically a rant common to the art world. Some may think it inappropriate for a philosophy magazine.

I suspect the question is a little like asking someone who has never seen a football match to deduce what the game is all about from no more than the sounds heard from outside the grounds. Furthermore, if I use a defunct television set as a doorstop, where does this leave me in relation to John Logie Baird? I know, I know... we all use systems we don’t understand; but you obviously knew that before you posed the question. I am sure every theoretical physicist who has slipped down the back of reality into the speculative world of ‘what if’ knows that what can be assuredly known can be written on the back of a fag packet, even leaving room for the health warning – and that is:it is all moving. After that it is all conjecture. Phrases like ‘event horizon’ or ‘singularity’ add an exotic perfume to the cosmic situation, but they cannot alter the fact that we are a load of drunks who have woken up on a train not knowing where we got on or where we are going. In the meantime the more sober of us have worked out something of the functioning of the system, but we still don’t know the origin or destination.

So what have we got? Well, we’ve got now. And now consists of three elements: the evident substance of the material universe, photographs and other memorabilia, and memory. All are subject to deterioration; all reintroduce the past into the present; and all are subject to the interactive effect of deterioration and reintroduction. Memory in particular is the most vulnerable because it is a biological system and therefore less stable than for example, a photograph. Photography however, although being less obviously vulnerable, is subject to developing technology and the prevailing perceptions within that technology. It is easy to date photographs within a reasonable span of time. Photography, unlike memory, is external to the self and therefore is also part of the substance of the material world.

All three elements are essentially fragile in that they are ‘sand castles’, subject to the ravages of time. None of them will hold their form beyond a very limited period, and they will then be subject to the vicissitudes of historical interpretation.

John Kaine

Camden, London

If the question bothers me enough to want to answer it, then I already have a certain level of mental sophistication (cogito ergo hebes non sum [I think therefore I’m not dull]). The probability of a simple world producing sophisticated thinkers is vanishingly small. So the world is complicated. A being that is sophisticated enough to think about these things will be fragile enough to need a good idea of what is going on in order to survive in a complicated world (thermodynamics). Now, either this thinking and being is independent of the physical world or it is not. If it is independent, then Descartes’ route to knowledge is available, ie pure reason. But people who worry about whether they can know anything can only exist in a world in which they can at least have true beliefs (an ‘anthropic principle of epistemology’), But knowledge of the world relies on successful interaction with the physical world. The extra ingredient to give knowledge may be a rational account (Plato toyed with this), justification (lots of people’s view until Gettier’s 1963 challenge) or tracking (Nozick). Unforetunately, philosophers can generate rational accounts and justifications to order. They can also argue their way round Nozick’s tracking test. So we philosophers have the stone by which true belief may be transmuted into knowledge, but it is unreliable. Finally, if the physical world does not exist then I did not read the question in Philosophy Now.

Richard Baron


Descartes thought he had a definite certainty in the cogito – what could be more certain than the existence of the self? Others questioned this, and Ayer watered it down to ‘there is a thought now’ to avoid presupposing the ‘I’. Does this not, however, also presuppose the ‘there’, ‘thought’ and ‘now’? In truth, all we can have certainty of is that there is something. We are constantly bombarded with the certainty that something exists. With every glance, sniff or touch we are obviously and indubitably aware of the existence of something – indeed the fact is forced upon us. In the Oxford English Dictionary, ‘Something’ is defined as ‘an unspecified thing’ and ‘Anything’ is defined as ‘a thing of any kind’. If someone asked for ‘an unspecified book’ then they have also asked for ‘a book of any kind’. If you had to relay the request, you could substitute one phrase for the other without the person being disappointed by the eventual choice of book. Generally, an unspecified thing is a thing with no specified type or kind, and thus could be said to be a thing of any kind – ie, anything. Therefore something and anything are logically equivalent. So, if the existence of something is certain, then the existence of anything is also certain, and therefore we can know that there is anything as long as it is not nothing – even if we do not know what anything is. [Aargh! – Ed]

Joshua Monahan

Rowlands Castle, Hants

The only way I can know anything is by the knowledge given to me by someone or something else. This can happen by learning from my parents, my society, everything I come into contact with from the day I was born until the day I die.

This is why two human beings who live in a completely different part of the world like the USA and a remote village in Africa have completely different knowledge about everything and anything. If I spend all my life alone in an empty room with no windows and no doors I will have no knowledge at all, from not knowing how to walk to not knowing that 2+2=4. All the knowledge that we have was giving to us by someone else. Therefore our knowledge can never be truly objective.

Is it no coincidence that we are all become our parents. [How did the first person know anything? – Ed.]

Maia Akiva

Los Angeles, CA

People never know things, they only subscribe to hypotheses with more or less commitment.

Someone of a discursive temperament who enjoys verbal frolics might reply, “But surely you know that you exist?” I subscribe strongly to the theory that there is indeed someone typing this, but this theory is conceivably erroneous. It would seem that to assert that x exists is to subscribe to a theory involving x. Given the possibility that I am a Martian Sandmole dreaming this while in my burrow, I have to ask what precisely the x could or must be that is experiencing. For any possible x there will be some degree of commitment to it as being the correct value. Not much commitment in most cases.

If the idle fellow were to say “But you have to allow that there is something doing the subscribing to the theory,” then I should reply that I am familiar with the usual rules of grammar, and that indeed I take it to be tautologous that a subscription must have a subscriber. But this is merely a statement about how language is conventionally used. In saying that I know that 2+2=4, what I mean is that I am familiar with the usual rules governing the use of the symbols. So although I am of the view that if there is a subscription to a hypothesis then there must be something doing the subscribing, I could be wrong about that; my grasp of language usage might be obsolete, or just plain false.

Given the degree of commitment suggested by the word ‘know’, it should be reserved exclusively for use by the insane.

Mike Alder

Western Australia

If you are to correctly claim to have knowledge about something, that knowledge must:

a) Be correct

b) Have been reached using a correct method (it can’t be a coincidence that you’re right).

The first obstacle to achieving knowledge is therefore that any information we receive though our imperfect senses could give an imperfect portrayal of the external world (see a). Secondly, our imperfect brains could process information incorrectly (see b). Therefore, a sufferer of schizophrenia might believe the ‘imaginary’ people he sees are real, or have a memory of something that never happened, and we too may have false perceptions of the external world, and even our own personal pasts. However, even the schizophrenic knows how things look and feel and sound and smell and taste to them. Like everyone, he has knowledge of his present sensations, his memories and his ideas. We are undoubtedly correct to say that we have knowledge of these things, because their reality doesn’t require existence of anything outside of the mind.

So, even though I can’t be sure that my perceptions give me a true picture of the external world, I do know what ‘the world to me’ is like. After that point, I don’t think it’s knowledge that is important, but reason. Reason allows us to take those bare bones of true knowledge and decide what they suggest about the world and how we should live in it.

Philosophy means ‘love of wisdom’. In Plato’s Republic, this is often referred to as ‘love of knowledge’, but I think this is incorrect. Whilst knowledge has it’s own small (but crucial) role in achieving wisdom and understanding, it is really reason that does the hard work to determine how we live our lives.

Then again, I don’t know that.

Sally Murray


Are any of these answers correct? Why/Why not?

Apologies to any whose answers came in too late to be considered.

Next Question of the Month

The next question is: What Is The Meaning Of Life? (Note: not What Is The Meaning Of ‘Life’?) Answers should be less than 400 words. Points will be awarded for clarity, a good argument, significance, insight, originality and readability. Qualifications are not relevant, but thoughtfulness is. Subject lines or envelopes should be marked ‘Question Of The Month’. Printed answers will receive a book chosen by the editor, so include your address. You will be edited.

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