What Can We Know? Knowledge vs. Belief vs. Reality

Questions like the nature of reality, perception and whether or not we can ever know what is real are many of the reasons why I often say that philosophy makes my head hurt. When I think about questions like these for an extended period of time, I not only have a headache, but I also have an existential crisis.  How do we know what we think we know?  Can we ever know what is real?  Perhaps not.  But we can “know” that what we perceive that we experience feels real and seems real and if our senses and experiences are all that we have available to define reality for ourselves, that reality is real enough to us in order to inform our decisions and our actions as a result of it.

The reading this week posited several alternative views on reality from a matrix or inception-like theme to the ever-popular concept of us being nothing more than a brain in a vat.  It is not possible to prove with certainty that I am not a brain in a vat, but that lack of certainty does not mean that I am a brain in a vat.  Without empirical evidence either way, the argument (although interesting) seems ultimately meaningless, although familiar to anyone who has ever encountered a presuppositional apologist such as Sye Ten Bruggencate.

The way that the brain perceives and process information is fascinating, and I can’t even pretend to understand how it works.  It receives information from our eyes, ears, nose and mouth and then uses that information to inform us about our world, defining our reality.  But is our reality real?  Does our reality comport to actual reality or the reality of others around us?  It is impossible to know.  As children, we were taught various colors.  We were told, for example, that grass is green and that the sky is blue (unless you live in Florida during storm season when the sky alternates between blue and black and back again in a matter of moments).  But how do we know what those colors really are?  Maybe when I look at grass, I see the color purple but since I was taught that grass is green, I call that color green despite how my brain perceives it.  Similarly, when my wife looks at the sky, she may see the color orange, but was told that it was blue, so she describes it as blue.  The question of whether or not different people perceive things the same way or not has fascinated me for a long time.  Unfortunately, there is no way for us to see the world through another person’s eyes temporarily to find out.

Definitions come into play here, and this week’s reading seems to go along with the idea of solipsism.  If solipsism is the idea that you can’t have certainty about anything other than your own mind with hard solipsism being that no other minds exist while soft solipsism says you can’t be certain whether or not other minds exist, absolute knowledge about anything – as the prompt suggests – seems unlikely.  It seems true, however, that we as human beings with limited knowledge are only able to assess reality as we experience it, not ultimate reality.  So what I define as true can only be things that align with reality as I experience it.  If the notion of solipsism is true, especially hard solipsism, the single mind that exists would seem incredibly arrogant to assert that it came up with every book, every invention, every song and every person that it perceives itself interacting with along the way.

So while I don’t think it’s likely that I can assert absolute knowledge or certainty about anything, I can express confidence in things.  It is possible that the sun will not rise in the morning someday, but I have relative confidence that, based on my experience that it has risen every morning that I have been alive to perceive it that it will most likely rise tomorrow as well.  Whether or not I’ll be able to see it in the midst of a tropical storm, however, is an entirely different question.

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