Knowing and Believing

In A God of Infinite Possibility on August 24, 2012 at 9:37 pm

Knowledge suggests the existence of fact.  If we can know something, then it must be true or factual.  Let’s assume, for the moment, that we actually inhabit a third dimensional reality that would be here even if we weren’t.  If that’s the case, then one way we can define a fact is “anything that exists independent of our knowledge of it.”  Some things simply are.  We discover them occasionally, but we don’t create them.  The tree-falling-in-the-forest riddle is a question about the relationship between human experience and objective reality; and if we agree that objective reality exists independently of our experience of it, then the riddle must be answered “yes.”

In an objective reality, there is the potential for 100% knowledge about the observable part of that reality.  The universe is a very big place, and we clearly do not know all of it yet.  We don’t even have complete knowledge of the observable reality on this planet.  New discoveries are made every day: new species, new substances, new information.  Although it  is possible to imagine a time when science might have discovered all there is to be discovered, and to have the power to be instantaneously aware whenever some new thing is created or evolves; it is not likely to happen any time soon.  The best we can say for the time being is that there is a body of knowledge, a collection of facts, that we do know, and a sense that there is more that is yet to be discovered.

Within the limits of our knowledge, these kinds of facts have power because they can be readily demonstrated.  If someone tells you that I am wearing red pants today, and there is the possibility of getting a look at me yourself, then as long as I have not had time to change my clothes, you can check the fact.  Either I am wearing red pants or I am not; and you can potentially get a demonstration of that fact.  Of course, even if you can’t get a look at my outfit, it may still be a fact that I am wearing red pants; you just don’t have objective knowledge of it.

What we live in is not, however, only an observable, independent reality.  It is also an experiential, human reality, because humans do not experience the objective reality in an objective way.  All human experience is filtered through layers of meaning and perception that may be both highly individual and broadly cultural.  Two persons who may appear to be having a common experience are actually having two individual experiences with some common objective elements to them.  As a result, it is useful to expand our meaning of “fact” to include knowledge that is derived from observable reality in reasonable ways.  These would be the “scientific” facts developed inductively from what is observable.

Such facts require demonstration of the observable reality, but also require demonstration of the reasoning process being applied to the observations.  The objective reality on which the theory of evolution is based – the fossil record, the genetic comparisons, for example – can all be observed and demonstrated.  But the fact of evolution as the fundamental explanation depends on an application of reason to the observations.  Reason is always at least partly subjective, of course, and is limited by the number of observations, so these kinds of facts can change as we collect new observations or have new people apply reason to them.  The power and importance of this kind of fact is, first, that it makes knowledge more broadly available (none of us can individually make all the observations necessary to develop all of these facts for ourselves); so we don’t have to constantly “reinvent the wheel.”  Secondly, this kind of fact makes it possible for us to condense large amounts of objective knowledge into one or two reasoned facts which we can then apply to our daily experiences.  I don’t need to do all the research myself, I don’t need to understand how it all works, in order to know that if I take 400 milligrams of something called ibuprofen it will reduce the pain I am feeling from my headache, but that overdoing it could lead to other medical problems associated with ibuprofen use.

But what about those things which may exist independent of us, but aren’t subject to either direct observation or reasonable inference?  Some knowledge is the product of experience that is so personal that there is simply no way to demonstrate it to others.  And in such cases, our conclusions about the experience may be based on reason that is also limited to our own internal processes, without being subject to any sort of scientific process.  Suppose you are walking in a field one day when you are surprised to observe an object, some kind of vehicle, perhaps, hovering above you.  It lands near you in the field, a door opens, and something that appears to be some kind of being emerges.  This creature observes you for a moment as you observe it, makes a gesture of greeting or acknowledgement, or perhaps of farewell, and reenters the vehicle, which then rises into the sky and disappears from sight.

What’s just happened?  What was the vehicle, what or who was the creature?  Did it actually exist, or did you experience some sort of hallucination?  What do you know?  Some kind of event has occurred and you have had, as a result, an experience of that event.  But what is that event?  In order to answer these questions you have to apply your own perceptions and your own reasoning to your experience.  You have to apply your beliefs to the experience; and the experience to your beliefs.  In the end, what you might say you know is a product of that process.  Did you see some sort of extra-terrestrial vehicle and alien being?  Did you have some sort of psychotic episode?  Perhaps you simply misinterpreted the sensory clues and there is some earthly explanation.

Now try to share your knowledge with others.  You know what you have experienced; which is to say that you have decided for yourself what that experience was, named it, formed a relationship with it; but what you know cannot be proven.  The event left no artifacts, no evidence; only your memory of it; and your memory reconstructs it with every recollection.  What do you tell people?  How do you explain your experience?  What facts do you relate?  Perhaps you even tailor the facts according to your perceptions of the others you are relating them to.  There are clearly some facts here, but the important facts are the ones you have created through your use of reason and selection.

Many of the things we routinely accept as factual are just as much constructs as our memories of the experience in the field.  They are facts because our reason tells us that they are the best explanation of our common experiences.  But our shared knowledge depends on the limitations of our shared language and this presents certain problems.  Language is both personal and metaphoric.  Language is personal because each of us creates meaning out of the interaction of language, experience, and perception.  Language is metaphoric because words have meaning for us according to the images they call to mind.  “Do not think of a white horse” is an impossible command as long as the listener understands the denotative meanings of the words.  But some language presents facts as deliberate metaphor.  When, for example, we say that the sun rises in the east, we are describing our metaphoric experience of the event, not the objective reality.  The sun doesn’t actually rise at all; the Earth turns so that we move with it until it becomes possible for us to see the sun at the horizon.  It is simpler and more pleasing, however, to comment on a beautiful sunrise than a beautiful rotating of the Earth eastward until we are able to see enough of the sun’s radiant energy to bring color to the particles of moisture in the atmosphere.  So the sun rises in the east and that’s a fact.

But some of our experiences, our observations, aren’t subject to objective observation.  Our “knowledge” of these things is subjective and personal.  We treat these things as factual in our lives, but they do not exist as fact apart from our own knowledge of them.  This is belief, or faith.  Belief is necessary to fill in the gaps in what we know.  Belief exists entirely in the realm of the experiential, subjective and personal.  If something is directly observable, then it does not require belief.  If there is an objective reality that exists separate from our experience of it, then the observable aspects of that reality do not require my belief.  If I step outside and it is raining, I don’t need to “believe” it is raining in order to experience it objectively; I will get wet no matter what I believe.  On the other hand, if my belief is strong enough, I may not “know” that I’m getting wet.  This sort of belief might, of course, be considered delusional at best.

But what if there are things that exist independent of our experience of them, but they are not subject to direct observation?  And what if some of our experiences are independent of objective reality?  This is the nature of our beliefs about God.  Whoever or whatever God might be; whether any specific God we humans have experienced, perceived, and defined actually exists independent of our experience; none of it is subject to rational proof.  It is possible to argue that God doesn’t exist only if we have defined God in a way that precludes that existence.  It is possible to argue God does exist only within the boundaries of our particular beliefs.  It’s possible that God exists but we have not yet evolved to a level of knowing that would allow us to observe and prove God.  It is possible that God exists in a way that doesn’t allow for direct observation, no matter how intellectually or scientifically advanced we become.  It is also possible that we might someday prove or disprove God in all possible manifestations and definitions.  And it is likely that even if that were to happen, some of us would continue to believe.

Regardless of whether the fellow standing in the rain is delusional, it seems probable that a very strong belief will almost always overrule an objective proof.  Facts are usually not persuasive unless they are coupled with a belief that gives them personal meaning for us; whereas beliefs can be powerfully persuasive in the complete absence of facts.

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