Nothing can be objectively known

by Michael Nugent on June 20, 2008

Note: This article was written several years ago. I have since incorporated its content into a more recent article that you can read here:

Why nothing can be known with certainty, and why it is reasonable to say that we know things

I suggest that you read the above article instead of the old one, for a more up-to-date version of my thoughts on this issue.

Old article follows

This is the first article in a series about why I assume two things about reality: (1) that nothing can be objectively known, and (2) that reality is basically as it seems to be. This article is about the first of those assumptions – that nothing can be objectively known.

This is a summary of why nothing can be known:
1. I seem to interpret the universe, and make assumptions, using my thinking.
2. But I can never know if any of my interpretations or assumptions are correct.
3. It is possible that this assumption may itself be incorrect.
4. However, that possibility does not prove that anything can be known.

And here is the detail of each of these points:

1. I seem to interpret the universe, and make assumptions, using my thinking.

The universe is all that exists, whether thoughts or things. Some of these:

■ I am aware of experiencing (conscious thoughts, my house, eating ice cream)
■ I experience but am not aware of (subconscious thoughts, my 42nd eyelash)
■ I am aware of but do not experience (composing an opera, visiting the moon)
■ I neither experience nor am aware of (thoughts I have not had, specific aliens)

These entities seem to change, combine and interact in complex ways. I must therefore interpret my awareness of them, then make assumptions based on my interpretations. I call the mechanism with which I do this, ‘my thinking’.

2. But I can never know if any of my interpretations or assumptions are correct.

Why? Because I can only interpret their correctness by using the very mechanism whose ‘efficiency-in-being-correct’ that I am testing (i.e. ‘my thinking’).

■ If I assume that my thinking always produces correct interpretations, then this assumption may itself be an incorrect interpretation, caused by flaws in my thinking about which I am unaware.
■ If I doubt my thinking’s reliability in always producing correct interpretations, then I must also doubt its reliability in testing the correctness of those interpretations.

3. It is possible that this assumption may itself be incorrect.

■ It may be that something can be known, using mechanisms other than ‘my thinking’, and that ‘I’ am simply not yet aware of how this can be done.
■ If I am shown a proof that ‘something can be known’, then I will change this assumption.

4. However, that possibility does not prove that anything can be known.

■ To prove that ‘something can be known’, it is not sufficient to undermine the certainty of this or any theory of why ‘nothing can be known’.
■ Indeed, undermining the certainty of this assumption can reinforce it, unless the undermining is accompanied by a positive alternative proof.

■ To prove that ‘something can be known’, the onus is on the ‘knowledge-claimer’ to show how this can be done, using a proof that does not rely on the very thinking that is itself being tested.
■ Until this happens, this seems the safest and purest working assumption to make about the nature of the universe: that, based on what seems to be my experience so far of the universe, nothing can be known.

Five Possible Theories of Reality

In the next article in this series, I will examine five possible theories of what reality might consist of.

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{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

1 declan June 20, 2008 at 12:45 pm

That’s pretty damn hard to disagree with.

2 Declan Chellar June 20, 2008 at 4:43 pm

Well said, Michael.

But…

Ummm…

Isn’t this the premise behind agnosticism? ;-)

Declan

3 Declan Chellar June 20, 2008 at 4:43 pm

Too many Declans around here. ;-)

4 Michael Nugent June 20, 2008 at 5:18 pm

Short answer:

Yes, and agnosticism is one valid reason for being an atheist.

Longer answer:

Well, that nothing can be objectively known is the first of my two assumptions.

The second assumption, which I will deal with in another article, is that reality is approximately as it appears to be.

Trust me, it ends up very consistent with atheism ;)

5 Declan Chellar June 21, 2008 at 1:17 pm

I don’t doubt it does, Michael.

It all makes me wonder, though, whether I am even here typing this. ;-)

6 Alexwebmaster March 3, 2009 at 8:54 am

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7 Jeremiah E. September 13, 2009 at 9:25 pm

Why is it that atheist seem to be so preoccupied with happiness? Are you trying to convince people that a belief in a life without a god replaced by science can be just as cognitively inebriating on the cellular level as it can be a belief in one? Why do you spend so much time teaching cells to be happy when happiness itself is so damn fickle? P.S. Actions are contributions Mr. Michael Nugent.

8 Ash July 21, 2011 at 5:49 am

As you say, our ability to communicate, know, or think logically is really too much to expect from the universe. However, we have the experience of communication, applying logic, and ‘knowing’ certain things. When argument and discussion takes place between multiple parties, we are able to see that, however bizarre our source of thoughts COULD be, they happen to be sufficiently sound that they are able to coherently connect and combine with the thoughts and arguments of other people. It’s like a computer signal always reporting the correct parity, or like a person who’s responses to your comments are always relevant. It implies that someone is really listening, and that the thoughts and logic that they are applying are similar to yours, and that your common knowledge is sufficiently accurate to ring true in their experience as well as yours. And, while this is in it’s own way bizarre for all the reasons that you say, it seems to be true. To me, it appears as if we were intended to be able to communicate and to ‘know.’ I believe that our experience of knowing has a mark of contrivance, which could be attributed to a higher power. For the sake of argument, I’ll call this entity ‘God.’

What I believe is that if there is an intelligent, creative God who wishes for us to be able to know truth and communicate, then he could have specifically designed those interfaces for us, and that they would themselves be almost a touch supernatural. On the other hand, if our intellect cannot be attributed to the design of another, I would agree that the expectation of real knowledge is unreasonable.

On a sort of parallel track, I think that if one believes that humans possess the ability to make choices (call it the ‘will’), then that must be attributed to a supernatural source, since our understanding of the natural world relies primarily on deterministic assumptions. If we rule out the supernatural, we rule out the ‘will’ with it, which is I think the attribute most essential to being human.

Anyhow, I believe in objective truth, and that truth can be known. I also believe in the ‘will,’ and with it the supernatural. I can accurately say that I know God, and my understanding of God reassures me that such knowledge is possible. Jesus claimed to be ‘the way, the TRUTH and the life.’ As cliche as that may sound, it really makes sense. In addition to the truth, Jesus was called the rock, and the alternative was called the sand. I believe that much of our human knowledge is very much like sand, in that we lack the ability to connect our ideas in the most perfect sense, whereas if absolute truth were just handed to us (Bible) we would have an amazing scaffold (rock) on which to build all our other thoughts. One example of the utility of this ‘knowledge rock’ is the mere knowledge that knowing is possible. “You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”

:)

9 joe February 23, 2013 at 12:33 am

Are you certain about that?

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