"At the edge of knowledge" from Atheist Climber Blog


We know nothing.

The collective knowledge of all the people on earth that have ever lived is but a drop in the ocean of all possible knowledge in the universe. (1) And the amount of knowledge any one person has is dwarfed by the knowledge of all mankind over its existence. As I've said in previous blogs, the cumulative knowledge of humankind is build on the countless centuries of knowledge shared by those who came before us.

A spiral galaxy seen side on- From Hubble

We are standing on the shoulders of giants, and are the giants upon whose shoulders future generations will stand.

To me it seems that knowledge is learned in two ways; active learning, where one is taught or studies to gain knowledge, and passive learning, where one absorbs the knowledge of those around them and by personal experience. In combination, passive and active learning help us to shape the breadth of our knowledge as individuals, and in groups of personal knowledge we formulate a cultural or societal knowledge.

But knowledge is subjective, and very much based on the stimuli and teachings that we as individuals are exposed to. Learnings from cultures outside of the ones we are familiar with may seem alien to us, even foolish. For many, what we know includes what we accept as fact, and what we believe to be true, and this will all be dependent on what and how we've been taught. What one individual holds as "truth" another may see as a bald-faced lie, and what one may see as "immoral" or "wrong" could be an accepted fact in another's culture. But the amazing thing about the human brain is the ability to take two seemingly unrelated pieces of knowledge and abstract them to create a third new piece of knowledge. We compare knowledge against knowledge and make decisions based on this. This is how knowledge progresses, with the input of new knowledge and our own interpretations of the way our accumulated knowledges resonate against it.

So with this in mind, our decisions and our personal knowledge, by its very nature, is fallible, because it is totally dependent upon the credibility of the information we have access to, and on our individual ability to see fact from fiction. If one is fed only information from one source and is sheltered from anything that might be contrary or questioning of that, it becomes deeply ingrained in our psyches. Our abilities to make useful judgements of the world depend upon the quality and reliability of the information we receive. The downside to this, being fed bad information means making poor judgement calls, and believing falsehoods. Just because something is considered as "knowledge" by someone, doesn't make it fact. And there are some things we just have to believe on faith (I cannot prove that Russell's Teapot does not exist, but I can be pretty much certain it does not.) Anything that cannot be proven, but is held as fact by an individual can be considered a "belief", eg. religion.

While knowledge is relatively subjective, belief is completely subjective. And while knowledge is what shapes our ability to function in society, belief on its own is incredibly powerful in shaping our decisions and directing our moral compasses.

Knowledge that is provable, repeatable and based in reality is called "fact". It is a truth verifiable from experience or observation. Sometimes, what someone "believes" is at ends with the facts, and causes, in most cases, the believer to fall into denial of these facts. People who deny that the earth is an oblique spheroid, people who deny evolution, people who believe conspiracy theories, vaccines linked to autism, who label science as "theoretical", these people are denialists and are controlled by beliefs only.

As Michael Specter said in his TED talk:

"People wrap themselves in their beliefs, and they do it so tightly that you cannot set them free. Not even the truth will set them free. And listen, everyone is entitled to their opinion, they are even entitled to their opinion on progress [...], but you are not entitled to your own facts."

A badly educated person, poorly home-schooled or brought up in a strictly religious household may hold beliefs that are at ends with reality. And it is usually through heredity that a person winds up in this sort of situation. Religion is equal to bad knowledge, which while it may teach some valuable life lessons and give comfort to those in need, it is based in a fallacy. Children can't tell the difference, and it is as children we are fed these stories, labelled as "fact".

With bad learning comes bad decisions. We can't afford any more bad decisions in this world. We need to defend facts. We need to defend our collective knowledge. We need to move toward secular learning. We need to think about what is real, and what is simply parable designed to control. And when confronted with the very edge of our knowledge, the complete limits of what we know, instead of throwing our hands up and claiming "God", let us strive for a real understanding.



UPDATE: (1) I received a few comments regarding the opening statement in this blog piece. I answered these concerns in the comments at my blog, but I have brought them up into the article so I don't get repeated comments. I qualify my opening statement thus:

"I say this from this standpoint: I am one of many who see the universe as infinite. My idea that the possible extent of all knowledge is unobtainable hinges on the infinite nature of the universe. Sure we have learnt a lot about the nature of the universe in history, but if the universe is truly infinite, then all possible knowledge is infinite and is therefore unobtainable, as the human brain is finite by its very nature."

I hope this answers any concerns that the above article may have brought up.

Views: 8

Tags: Astronomy, Atheism, Atheist, Humanitarian, Kindness, Philosophy, Religion, Science, Secular, epistemology, More…galaxies, history, natural, nature, opinion

Comment by Shine on May 11, 2010 at 11:39am
Great post, Martin! One of the most irritating things about discussing belief with a believer is the inevitable denigration of knowledge in general. Just because some knowledge is subjective does not excuse the complete subjectivity of belief. Like you said, there is nothing wrong with recognizing the potential fallibility of knowledge or the process of attaining knowledge; experiential observation and rational analysis will always provide a closer truism than the tenets of belief and faith.

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