To My Skeptical Friends
In my previous article, "Gullibility and Skepticism," I wrote: "Most knowledge is simple and absolute. The cat is either in the closet or it isn't. Looking in the closet provides absolute knowledge of which it is. It was this kind of idea that Da Vinci probably had in mind when he said, 'to see is to know.'"
We become so accustomed to such, "obvious," knowledge it is not even considered knowledge. To know if it's raining or snowing, one looks out the window. To know whether one remembered to shut off the burner on the stove one looks at the stove. To know on which page in a book a certain reference will be found, one looks in the book. To see, in all such cases, is to know.
On any given day there are myriad things we hear, feel, smell, and taste, and by that simple immediate perception know things like, someone is calling, whether or not the baby's bottle is warm enough, something is burning, and one forgot to add the salt.
Well, it's not that kind of knowledge the skeptics doubt, I've been told. Well then, what kind is it? I can only provide examples.
Some Skeptical Views
All that follows are based on views expressed by skeptics.
One form of extreme skepticism says, "science cannot prove anything true, it can only prove what is untrue." But if something is proved untrue, that is a kind of knowledge. "It is true Phlogiston does not exist and is not the basis for combustion." That particular knowledge opened up the way for the discovery of the true nature of combustion.
I'm not quite sure how to understand the following view: "Plato talks about forms that exist outside of appearances and that we must, 'see things for what they are."
If the writer is referring to Platonic realism, that particular rationalization was handily refuted by Peter Abelard (whose epistemology and explanation of universals was one of the best). If it is Plato's contention that the world of direct perception is not the, "really real world," that is referred to, since Plato had no more mystic insight into some other more real world than anyone else, and Plato had only the same world everyone else observes to derive his ideas from, why should anyone believe his rationalizations over the clear evidence of one's own perception? It is very much like the argument of the woman caught by her husband in bed with another man, "are you going to believe the evidence of your eyes over the word of your loving wife?" Well I'm going to believe the evidence of my eyes over the crackpot machinations of Plato's mind.
The world of direct perception is in fact the real world, the only real world, which has the exact nature it seems to have.
(I wrote a detailed article about the nature of perception, "PerceptionóThe Validity of Perceptual Evidence," about twelve years ago which explains the true nature of perception, the reality of the perceived world as it is perceived, and why so-called perceptual illusions are not illusions at all. It is a fairly long article that addresses some wrong views of perception as well presenting a correct one. I'll try to provide a condensed version soon for this site. Do read it if you are truly interested in understanding the nature of perception, or if you are a student of Ayn Rand whose own views on perception I have corrected.)
No Known Method
Another view was presented in the form of a question: "Why are you convinced that there is certain knowledge, in other words, what method do you think you have that will give you certain knowledge?"
This question was asked before the following statement which assumes the writer's own answer to the question.
"By default. We donít know of any method that gives us certain truth. Sure it would be nice to have one. But we just donít know of any. And the only logical conclusion from that is, that there is no certain truth."
The answer to the question concerning the method is, 'the method is objective reason.' I never know quite what to make of statements like this, "We donít know of any method that gives us certain truth." I have no idea who, "we," is supposed to be, but since it obviously includes the writer, I am inclined to take his word for it. Since he knows no way to find certain truth, there is no reason to read anything he writes. But I'm interested in why anyone would think this. Perhaps no one has explained to him how to know the truth, or what truth actually is, but I think the real reason is because he has, like many people, accepted some kind of mystic view of what truth means.
Truth is not some divine mystical absolute that only exists in the mind of God, and it is not something that exists in some ideal absolute manner like Platonic ideal forms. Truth only exists in human minds. It is an attribute of propositions. A proposition that makes a statement about any aspect of reality that is correct is true. A proposition that makes a statement about any aspect of reality that is incorrect is untrue. Truth is the quality of all correct propositions about reality and nothing more.
Every correct statement anyone makes about any aspect of reality from the time they get up to the time they go to bed that is correct, is true, from reporting the time, to declaring the coffee ready is true. Reporting there is gas in the car, the children are ready to go, the keys are on the table, are all true if there is indeed gas in the car, the children are ready, and the keys are on the table. They are all the truth, absolutely knowable truth. All one has to do to prove any of them is to check the gas, observe the children, and pick up the keys.
Skeptics always choose some of the most difficult aspects of reality to understand to point out some things that are not yet fully understood, usually from the sciences, as evidence that there is no absolutely certain knowledge. The one science they almost never reference is chemistry.
Of all the sciences chemistry has perhaps produced the largest body of certain knowledge. Have a look at the periodic table provided by Los Alamos National Laboratory. (If you don't know the symbols of the elements, use "Elements with their Symbol and Atomic Number in alphabetical order" list.)
Click on a few of the elements symbols to see a page describing the many things known about each element. These are not approximations or statistical likelihoods, they are absolute certain properties.
This does not mean everything that could possibly be known about every element is known, or that some properties are not yet established. It means that a great deal is known with certainty about the chemical elements, and what is known is true, absolutely.
It is that characteristic of chemistry that first attracted my interest while I was still a young boy. I was especially interested in the halogens, fluorine, chlorine, bromine, iodine, and astatine.
You may never have heard of astatine because there is almost nothing known about it. It is radioactive and most isotopes of astatine have half-lives of less than a minute, making it a bit difficult to study. (One isotope does have a half-life of 5.41 hours, and there has been some recent success in analyzing its chemical properties.)
All the halogens are extremely interesting and important, and I used them all in many of my experiments as a boy. (My grandfather was a pharmacist and provided me with any reagent or compound I wanted. Today he'd be put in jail for most of the things he provided me.) I found fluorine the most interesting of them all. I never isolated fluorine gas and for a very good reason.
The chemistry pioneers, Humphry Davy, Joseph Louis Gay-Lussac, and Louis Jacques Thenard, all tried to isolate elemental fluorine but succeeded only in damaging their health. George and Thomas Knox were also badly poisoned attempting to make fluorine, and Paulin Louyet and Jerome Nickles died from fluorine poisoning.
I think it is safe to say it is known with absolute certainty that fluorine is a very dangerous element. I'll also point out that it has definitely and without equivocation been identified.
Fluorine is a highly toxic, colorless gas. It is the most reactive element known. Asbestos, water, and silicon burst into flame in its presence. It even reacts with the supposed inert elements, krypton, xenon, and radon.
I did have hydrofluoric acid, which dissolves glass and almost everything else. I had to keep it in a special kind of paraffin bottle, because it dissolved every other kind. I used it for etching labels on glass bottles.
So if anyone reading this thinks there is no known method that gives us certain truth, do some reading about the history of chemistry and learn the methods used by the pioneers in chemistry who discovered all the certain truth about the chemical elements that is now taken for granted. From there, if you really want to get an idea how much knowledge chemistry has produced, move on to the chemistry of compounds, inorganic and organic chemistry.
Certain Identification Not Possible
One skeptic concludes his post, "So identifying things in the universe with 100% certainty is simply not possible."
This is another kind of assertion I do not really understand. I have no idea what one can mean by, "identification," if one does not believe it is possible. Is such an individual unable to identify the moon, an apple, their own children, or their own address? Unless an individual is somehow demented, every individual identifies an indefinite number of things almost every moment they live.
I addressed the absurd "percentage" fallacy in my previous article. A thing is either identified or it isn't. A thing cannot be "almost" identified. If one identifies something as a pomegranate, which is actually an apple, the identification is not a less than 100% identification of an apple, it is a 100% wrong identification of an apple.
How does one come to such incorrect views?
Perhaps some of this skeptic's other ideas will reveal the mistake. For example: "Newton was probably certain that his equations of motion were correct. But Einstein proved otherwise."
This often repeated distortion ignores the nature of knowledge itself. It implies that what Newton discovered was simply canceled by what Einstein discovered. As explained in my previous article, "certainty means knowing what one does know, based on objective evidence within the context of that to which the knowledge pertains." The context of Newtonian physics was all that was known at the time, and is as true in that context as it was when Newton developed those principles. Einstein's relativity did not change Newtonian physics, it expanded on it, because the context was broader. It is very unlikely that Einstein's discoveries would have been possible without Newtonian physics.
Sometimes skeptics, in their irresistible urge to prove nothing can be known with certainty cannot help resorting to the worst kinds of sophism. For example, "We cannot be absolutely certain of anything, because we may be in the Matrix. Can you prove we are not in the Matrix?" The "matrix" is a total fiction, but like God, or any other fiction, it cannot be, "proved," it is not true (because a negative can not be proved), except that nothing for which there is no evidence can ever be accepted as true. There is no evidence for God, the matrix, or any other superstitious nonsense. All evidence is evidence of the real world we are directly conscious of.
Now here is an odd contradiction. "... we know that magic gods cannot exist and why only an evolutionary process could develop diverse lifeforms." The skeptic claims to, "know," that an evolutionary process is responsible for diverse lifeforms. He doubts the certainty of the physical sciences but totally buys the evolutionary hypothesis for which there is neither evidence or objective verification. Here is skepticism about those sciences based entirely on evidence but total gullibility about a pseudo-science.
The following is also typical of the skeptics approach. "Like your heroine, Ms. Rand, who, ... invented a philosophy that started, I believe with the statement 'A=A.'" Of course Rand is no more a "hero" to me than many other intellectuals I have enjoyed, and I would not have said anything about this if this particular skeptic had not brought this up. Ayn Rand did not begin her philosophy with "A=A" (which she correctly stated as "A is A," meaning a thing is what it is, and nothing else,), it was how she began her explanation of axioms, in relation to her epistemology. But since Rand was brought up, I think her actual view ought to be addressed.
In an article, "Philosophy: Who Needs It," published in, The Ayn Rand Letter, December 31, 1973, Rand asked two lengthy questions pertaining to metaphysics (what is known) and epistemology (how one knows). In those two brief passages the fundamental issue of knowledge and certainty are addressed.
"Are you in a universe which is ruled by natural laws and, therefore, is stable, firm, absolute—and knowable? Or are you in an incomprehensible chaos, a realm of inexplicable miracles, an unpredictable, unknowable flux, which your mind is impotent to grasp? Are the things you see around you real—or are they only an illusion? Do they exist independent of any observer—or are they created by the observer? Are they the object or the subject of man's consciousness? Are they what they are—or can they be changed by a mere act of your consciousness, such as a wish?"
"No matter what conclusions you reach, you will be confronted by the necessity to answer another, corollary question: How do I know it? Since man is not omniscient or infallible, you have to discover what you can claim as knowledge and how to prove the validity of your conclusions. Does man acquire knowledge by a process of reason—or by sudden revelation from a supernatural power? Is reason a faculty that identifies and integrates the material provided by man's senses—or is it fed by innate ideas, implanted in man's mind before he was born? Is reason competent to perceive reality—or does man possess some other cognitive faculty which is superior to reason? Can man achieve certainty—or is he doomed to perpetual doubt?"
The skeptic is essentially aligned against the efficacy of the human mind to identify and understand the nature of the world one lives in. The dichotomy is not perfect: the world we directly perceive is the real world and can be known and understood, or "it is not;" all knowledge about reality is derived by reason about what is actually perceived and is both true and certain, or "it is not." The dichotomy is not perfect because the "it is not" school includes every form of mysticism that denies reality or accepts some other source of knowledge other than reason, but every version has this in common—something is supposed to be true without evidence that invalidates knowledge based only on evidence.
We have now come to the end of this skeptics explanation of why certain knowledge is not possible, with this explanation: "Every 'thing' named by human language is classified within an envelope that defines that sort of 'thing,' and the envelope has flexible borders. For example, You and I could certainly agree that a particular artifact was a 'bicycle'. But if we asked the manufacturer to show us a pile of raw materials from which the bike was made, and then asked her to manufacturer 1 million intermediate stages, morphing from bike to raw materials, then the judgment as to where the raw materials ended and the bike started would be necessarily subjective. So identifying things in the universe with 100% certainty is simply not possible."
A bicycle is a bicycle and we know what a bicycle is because it has the attributes of a bicycle. This is true of anything that exists. A thing is what it is because it has the attributes it has. Every existent is whatever its attributes (qualities, characteristic) are and one identifies an existent by identifying its attributes.
The argument did not have to use a man-made thing, any metaphysical existent might have been used. A chicken is a chicken because it has all the attributes of a chicken. A chicken egg is not a chicken. As a chicken embryo develops, each stage can be identified as a particular stage of development. When the chicken finally hatches, it is a baby chicken. It too has transitional stages from baby chicken to adult chicken. Those stages can also be identified. When the chicken is finally an adult chicken it is a chicken, and not possibly anything else.
The skeptic knows a bicycle can be identified, else he could not have made the argument. The transitional stages from raw materials to completed bicycle are not some mysterious unidentifiable thing. Many things have transitional states which can also be identified. There is nothing that exists that human beings can be conscious of that cannot be identified. (Many are not because there is no real intellectual use for them. Transitional forms are often lumped together as simply transitional forms, until or unless there is some reason to identify any particular state of that transition.)
All knowledge begins with concepts, and the only function of concepts is the identification existents. It is exitents identified by concepts that all knowledge is about. If the existents a human being is conscious of could not be identified, no knowledge would be possible, and the skeptics would be right.
Fortunately, human beings are not only capable of identifying the existents that are reality, but begin identifying them as soon as they begin to use language, and those identifications are true and absolute. An apples is an apple is an apple—absoluteley.