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    The search for knowledge

    September 19, 2019

    “Why search for knowledge?” and “What is knowledge good for?” you may well ask. The answer to the second question would be also the answer to the first. In common with all living things, we, the members of the species presumptuously self-styled Homo sapiens sapiens (Latin for wise, wise Man) are primarily concerned with survival on earth. If you think about it, you will realise that survival requires continuous adjustment, automatically or consciously, to our external environment, physical and social. To the extent there is harmony between ourselves and our environment, our survival is promoted. To the extent there is disharmony between ourselves and our environment, our lives run the risk of becoming “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short” - as the English philosopher Thomas Hobbs (1588-1679) memorably put it.


    It is easy to make out a case for the view that it is the knowledge that has tended to make human life social, rich, pleasant, humane and long. That is what knowledge is good for, and that is the justification for the endless search for it. But there is a problem. Knowledge is not all bliss. Sadly, the power of knowledge has not always been pressed to the service of the general welfare of humankind. Just think of the diverse products of knowledge - the printing press, television, radio, computer, airplane, motor car, antibiotics, fertilizers, contraceptives and so on - and the uses to which they have been put. Even so, nobody can doubt that knowledge of the forces of nature pertaining to agriculture has enabled us to secure food in greater abundance with less physical labour.

    Medical knowledge has given us the power to prevent premature death and avoidable suffering and to enhance the quality of our lives. Knowledge of how to live with others has made human life less nasty and brutish. And knowledge of the arts – music, dance, drama, painting, literature – has contributed enormously to the enjoyment of life.


    A moment’s thought suffices to show that knowledge about how nature works come from the natural sciences such as physics, chemistry and biology. Knowledge about how human societies function is derived from the social sciences such as history, politics, economics, and anthropology. How to live harmoniously with others is the subject matter of ethics, philosophy and religion. Skilled exponents of the arts are the best repositories of artistic knowledge. So, in broad terms, science, philosophy (religion) and the arts are the areas where the search for knowledge should go on unabated.

    Suppose we ask an intelligent modern schoolboy (or schoolgirl, for that matter) to try and figure out the sources of his knowledge, he will come up with several. Most of the “facts” he knows, he will trace to the authority of his parents, teachers, books and the internet. “Teach these boys and girls nothing but facts. Facts alone are wanted in life” are the words that Charles Dickens put into the mouth of a character in Hard Times. Modern boys and girls get their facts through the medium of language and they accept the facts at second hand because they are aware that if they so desire, they could trace them back for verification to the documents of the original observers.

    Perception, reason and emotion

    Second-hand knowledge of facts apart, our intelligent schoolboy will figure out that it is through his senses – vision, hearing, smell, taste and touch - that he directly gains knowledge about the external world. The colours of the rainbow, the song of the birds, the smell of a rose, the sweetness of honey and the hardness of nails, he knows by direct perception through his senses.

    He may also realise that there are circumstances in which he can arrive at knowledge solely by the exercise of his reason. For example, if he knows that the friend he is looking for is either in the classroom or on the playground and at a given point in time, he is not in the classroom, he will know by deductive reasoning that his friend must be on the playground. Finally, our schoolboy is likely to admit that it is by a feeling – a gut feeling – that he knows who loves him most in this world. So language, perception, reason and emotion, would seem to be the sources of human knowledge.

    Language, perception, reason and emotion can indeed give us knowledge, but they can also lead us to false beliefs. For although the language is the medium of truth; it is also the medium of lies. Every time we see the appearance of water on a hot road, in the absence of water, or a straight pencil half-immersed in a breaker of water that appears bent, we realize how illusory our sense of vision can be. Experience has shown that our other senses are equally liable to error. The falsification of the generalisation reached by inductive reasoning that all swans are white, based on observing millions of swans in Europe, by the discovery of black swans in Australia, showed the fallibility of human reason. The way in which “true love” turns out to be terribly false every now and then, demonstrates the unreliability of our emotions as a source of definitive knowledge.

    Problem of knowledge

    It is clear therefore that there is such a thing as what philosophers characterise as the problem of knowledge. In truth what we regard as knowledge comprises a set of beliefs of varying degrees of certainty. The truth of each belief demands empirical justification. Hence the common definition of knowledge as “justified, true belief”. Our search for knowledge leads us inexorably to the conclusion that absolute certainty is not attainable even by the wisest among the species Homo sapiens sapiens.

    In ancient Athens, Socrates went about saying that there was only one thing he knew and that was that he knew nothing. Today humankind collectively knows a great deal more than what Socrates did. Socrates taught that what we most need to know is how we ought to live.

    How ought we to live in the teeth of strong evidence that we cannot be absolutely sure of anything? Don’t be dogmatic about anything, and tolerate everything except homicidal intolerance would be my prescription. Take it or leave it.

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