The Pursuit of Knowledge

Can you know what you don't know?

Can you know what you don’t know?

I realized after I finished my article on Agnosticism that I still had much more to say on the subject. And when an idea gets into my head, sometimes the only way to make it stop swirling around my brain, bumping into things and making a complete mess is to let it out to play. So if you enjoy philosophical discussions, debates, arguments, screaming matches or whatever you do, feel free to continue reading and let me know what you think (Please! I really want feedback on my blog.) If this topic is a bit too heavy for you, feel free to read my articles “Put on a happy face” or “5 Things that are better than stepping on a cat”. They are light and airy and just a bit silly. No deep thinking there.

I recalled a discussion I had once with an atheist. He asked me what I believe happens when we die. I could tell by the look in his eye that he was waiting for me to say something along the lines of “Our souls leave our body and go to Heaven”. Like a ravenous dog waiting for a scrap of fresh meat, he waited impatiently for my spiritually based answer so that he could tear into me with his response. I knew he was itching to show me how ignorant my response was and how he was clearly my intellectual superior by dismissing my dogmatic belief and extolling his far more pragmatic one. You can imagine his disappointment when I simply said “I don’t know”.

He looked at me with a stunned expression. “What do you mean ‘You don’t know’?” he asked.

“I mean I don’t know… and neither do you.” I said.

“Of course I know. What happens when you die is nothing!” he stated smugly. “Your body turns to worm food and that’s it. No soul, no afterlife, no existence of any kind.”

“How do  you know that?” I asked.

“Anyone with any intelligence knows that, duh.” he said with some irritation. “Only an idiot would think you go to some far off place and live forever.”

“I never said that’s what happens.” I replied calmly.

“Well no, but that’s what religious people think. I can’t believe how arrogant some people are. There’s NO PROOF of God or Heaven or a soul and yet they believe that crap anyway.” he complained.

“Yeah” I said. “Imagine being absolutely certain of something without being able to prove it.” I replied coyly.

“No kidding. How ignorant can you be?” he asked rolling his eyes.

“Soooo…” I started. “How are you so sure again that nothing happens after death? Is there some kind of indisputable scientific evidence that proves this? Have you spoken to someone after they died and had them tell you that nothing happens? Oh, right, that would be a paradox, wouldn’t it?”

“Well I uh…” he stammered.

“I mean, didn’t you just say that one would have to be ignorant and arrogant to believe something without definitive proof? I asked pointedly. “And yet you have no more evidence of your belief than that of say… a Christian. Isn’t that correct? Wouldn’t the only honest answer to your question be that you don’t know?” I was now staring at him intently.

“Let me repeat my answer to you. You asked what happens after we die. I don’t know. You don’t know. Christians don’t know. Muslims don’t know. Jews don’t know. No one in the world knows. We can speculate about what happens. And I would agree that your speculation, from a scientific point of view is more plausible than a Christians speculation, but the difference between me and a Christian or Atheist is that I know that it’s speculation and nothing more, whereas you think your speculation is truth.”

At this point I had him scrambling for a response. In the end, we left the conversation as most people do in situations like this. We agreed to disagree (whatever that really means).

I think the point I most wanted to drive home in my previous article was the idea that Agnosticism is the only honest approach one can take in trying to understand the universe. The only truth about things we do not know, cannot know is that we don’t know. Knowledge and belief are very different but they are confused constantly. And I think the greatest sin that Atheists commit is the arrogant assumption that they “know” the answers. They assume that their rejection of religion is somehow proof that since the institution of religion is false, that all of the constructs within that institution are false and therefore no God could possibly exist. This is a logic fallacy.

Let’s talk about knowledge, or more specifically, what humans can “know”. If knowledge is information we have perceived, stored, analyzed, organized and somehow come to understand, then we must accept that knowledge is limited by our mind. Let me use an analogy. Let us think of the brain and the mind as a computer. The brain (consisting of our cerebrum, cerebellum, medulla oblongata, thalamus, etc) is the computer “hardware” and the mind is the “software”. Our mind is the program that makes sense of the chemical/electrical processes of the brain. In this sense, we can start to see that our ability to think, to understand and to know is limited by both our brain and our mind.

For example, I could take the most sophisticated weather modeling software (pretty complex stuff as far as computer programs go) and load it onto the fastest and most powerful computer known to man. Now it may be able to process all kinds of fantastic calculations that would take a human days or weeks to solve but it still has its limitations. If I wanted to take a picture of my face and digitally draw a mustache on it, I would be unable to do so with this setup. For all its computing power and complexity, it’s not designed to manipulate images. And yet, I could fire up my laptop and open up MS Paint and easily accomplish this task. Paint is a relatively simple program but it would allow me to draw a mustache on my picture because that’s what it’s designed to do. In the same way, our mind is limited by its structure and function.

Let me use another example. Assume that humans had evolved (darn, there’s that theory of Evolution. Sorry Creationists) without eyeballs, optic nerves or the portion of our brain dedicated to processing information about visible light. In this instance, we would be completely unaware of visible light. We would not know about it or even be able to comprehend it. It would  have no meaning to us whatsoever. And yet it exists.

Modern physics suggests that it is very likely that the universe could exist in multiple dimensions. Imagine if you will that there is a dimension that is different from our own, but alike in every single way except for the fact that we are unable to perceive it. It could contain life similar to ours that is just as real as us and yet we would have no concept of what it was because our biology prevents us from knowing such things. Just as a human without eyes is unaware of visible light, we could be unaware of other life in existence or perhaps even our own life as it is perceived by those on another plane of existence. Perhaps what some think of as “ghosts” or “souls” is merely our own life force as experienced from another dimension.

Think of a fish. Is a fish aware of the water in which it swims? Perhaps not. If the fish had no real way of perceiving the water then it would feel to the fish as though it didn’t exist. And even if the fish were aware of the water in a rudimentary way, it could never understand that water is merely made up of molecules comprised of hydrogen and oxygen. It could never truly know the nature of water, where it came from, what lies beyond it or why it’s swimming in it. So assuming a fish was not aware of water, then perhaps the movement of water through currents and tides would seem to the fish like some kind of Intelligent Design. While I’m not suggesting that water is intelligent or aware, the perception by the fish might make it seem so. It might be the equivalent of what we think of as “Fate” or “God’s Will”. Could there be some sort of imperceivable Cosmic current moving through the universe, some sort of cohesive energy that moves in certain patterns that can subtly impact the course of our lives? I suppose.

Again, this is speculation and I am not suggesting that any of this is true, merely that is is possible and we would never know. The real point is that it is the greatest of falsehoods to assume that humans can truly “know” whether or not something on the scale of a Cosmic Supreme Entity exists. And this is why the only logical philosophical perspective that makes any sense is Agnosticism. “I don’t know” is neither a cowardly or ignorant stance. It is, as far as I know… the truth. And it will remain the truth… until it isn’t.



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