Truth is a wily bastard.
The concept of truth: that which is, seems straightforward enough, yet in much of our existence, getting what is to match our understanding of what is remains elusive. Not that all we know is untrue but that all we know is uncertain to be true. We can’t tell the true stuff from the false stuff. It’s all just… stuff.
And yet this stuff, what we detect, what we presume, what we derive or intuit, true or not, is still the best thing we have to go on. Information of suspect quality is better than no information at all. We look to derive the truth from what we have. We model our understanding of the universe based on the dubious consistencies in patterns we can discern from the shadows we detect amidst the background noise.
It gets worse. With no way to contrast clear perceptions versus mirages and illusions, we presume that our vision is clear and focused until we determine that not everything is quite right. A good portion of our brain is devoted to sorting it out. Animal brains devote a good part of their computational ability to pattern recognition, since those with it became predator chow less often than those without. Our pattern recognition errs on the side of false positives over false negatives and errs towards the assumption of agency and malice. Better to flee from shadows too often than even once not often enough.
Humans learn the fallibility of their senses and presumptions fairly quickly. Monsters seldom actually emerge from closets or under beds. Beastly neighborhood dogs turn out to be friendly (if a bit eager to bark). People of the wrong color turn out to be friendly. Familiar friends turn out to be deceptive, manipulative or outright predatory. Health food tastes bland. Delicious fast food isn’t healthy. And so on.
It’s a horrible discovery (and in psychology called a narcissistic injury*) to discover that we don’t see things always as they are. And yet another one to discover that we will never have good detection, even if we practice really hard and watch out for all the signs of bad things.
We live our entire lives in the murk of our biological senses, filtered by further by a sophisticated cognitive process by which our brain converts raw sensory data into situational information. We are seldom aware of the differences between what we saw, what we didn’t see clearly but was probably a thing-we-recognize, and what we didn’t see but extrapolated from prior memory. In this way, we are isolated from the reality outside. We navigate the universe from a diving helmet in dark murky water.
It is from awareness of this proverbial diving helmet that we get the study of epistemology, a branch of philosophy concerned with how we know what we know (and how we differentiate what we know from what we believe). That said, sorting this stuff out isn’t a matter that can be resolved in a post on a blog, or for that matter, a handful of blogs devoted entirely to the discussion of these specific topics. How We Know We Know Stuff Rather Than Just Pretending We Know Stuff is a topic that has taken many authors writing several multi-volume works across many centuries. And it’s still incomplete.
And much like the professors of Miskatonic University going mad in their pursuits of chthonic lore while trying to understand the universe, Epistemologists delve often into the darker catacombs of existentialism, where all the notions we take for granted every day to survive become subject to doubt. It is from within this adventure that Descartes’ famous line, Cogito ergo sum was formalized, and Team Wachowski posited we live in a simulated universe of kung-fu and bullet-time acrobatics.
“I think. Therefore I exist.” This is the extent of what you can know of reality with absolute certainty, and it only applies to the one doing the thinking. (Since I can’t be certain that you think, I can’t determine that you exist outside my own dreams and hallucinations.) Every step away from the existence of the self** is a step into the unknown.
Your own existence is your one absolute truth.
Next time: Descartes failed to banish the Evil Demon that keeps epistemologists and existentialists in the great chasm of uncertainty. In our next exciting episode, we explore the thread that helped them climb out and pretend it never happened.
* Note that the Wikipedia entry frames narcissistic injury in relation to narcissistic personality disorder, though such injuries and the process of coming to terms with them (discovery, denial, rage, grief, chocolate, etc.) are a normal part of human development, from ZOMG I sometimes feel icky and Mom can’t fix it! to ZOMG Despite my cushy job, my beautiful spouse and my zippy car, I am still unhappy! to ZOMG I am inevitably going to die! At some point, the psych sector may have decided on a kinder, gentler name for the normal everyday kind of narcissistic injury so that patients don’t infer from the term that ZOMG I’ve got the cray-cray!
** You can’t even determine your form other than being actively thinking. As far as we’re concerned, we’re starfish in the ethereal undercurrent dreaming of being apes with sex and cheeseburgers and cats.