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Rational Inquiry -Volume 7 Number 3

What Do I Know?

By Colin Fisher

Colin Fisher has been a member of SDARI since 2001. This is his first contribution to the newsletter.

You and I are having a conversation. You say something that I know to differ from what I "know." I tell you what you should have said and you sincerely disagree with me.

The above scenario happens frequently to each of us. Why does this happen so often? How can we disagree when I know that I am right and you know that you are right? I will answer my side of these questions by addressing how I "know" things. By "know" I am not addressing the philosophical issue of absolute truth. This is about my personal classification system for sorting the information that I use to make practical decisions.

We all need to know many things in order to function in all, everyday situations. For example, I need to know how to find my way home. I need to know the physical appearance of my close associates. I need to know how to drive a car. I need to know that most persons are sleeping after midnight and are likely to be awake after eight in the morning. A list like the above is practically unlimited in length.

There are many sources of information available to us. We are bombarded with information in our urban society. Each day I hear, read or see many things that are new to me. Out of all these things, I remember some of them and store them in my memory in a place labeled, "This is what I know!" I also remember others and store them in a place labeled, "This is false or highly suspicious." There are many storage bins between the two extremes of varying credibility.

How do I make these judgments, often rather unconsciously? I believe that I prioritize what I think I know in accordance with the source of the information. My personal priority system comes from experience and has been mostly applied unconsciously. This essay is an attempt to make my ranking of common sources more conscious, if not explicit.

I would like to say that, just because I say that I know something, it does not mean that I will not change my mind when confronted by adequate evidence to the contrary. We all make mistakes.

Here is a list of most of my sources of information. The list is in descending order of priority for me to store something in the place called, "This is what I know!"

I Know What I Experience

Things that come into my consciousness directly from my own senses and thoughts are given my highest priority for things that I know. I need not trust any other person to accurately present me with information. These experiential things are most difficult to refute should I receive new and convincing evidence to the contrary. I assign such a high priority to experience that its importance to me is well above that of the next closest information source.

I Know What is Produced by the Scientific Method

I have great respect for information produced by the scholarly, scientific method. This information is usually organized in accordance with some theory or systematic approach, based upon experimental observation, published, subject to review by the authorís peers and independently confirmed by experimental measurement conducted by other qualified workers. "Published" generally means published in a reputable scientific journal that normally publishes articles by scholars in a particular field of work.

I Know What a Trusted Acquaintance Tells Me

When a friend that I believe to have integrity as well as the experience and intellectual capacity to be quite likely to be telling me what they know, I believe what I am told. When told something new by a friend, I judge the validity of the information based upon my assessment of the three points listed above: integrity, experience and intellectual capacity. When told something new by a stranger, I might consider it based upon my perception of that personís reputation, but I generally rank the validity of the information rather low.

I Know What Scholars Say About History

History comes in several flavors relative to my perception of what I can say that I know. Much of ancient history has no written record that has survived from the time when the events occurred. The stories usually come to us from oral tradition and may have been hundreds or thousands of years old before the stories were written. Additionally, it is well known that storytellers embellish their stories to make them more entertaining to their listeners. On the other hand, societies that treasured record keeping, like that of the Romans, have left records that are most likely quite accurate. It is also important to consider that historians tend to put a particular "spin" on histories that are presented in textbooks or in publications such as magazine articles. This whole area of history should be taken with a grain of salt until the basis for the reports can be understood and evaluated. It is also important to understand the scholarly environment in which the material is reported and how much peer review is implemented in that environment.

I Know What is Presented in the Media

The media includes newspapers, magazines, television, radio, and associated web pages. I also include publications by reputable corporations and institutions, such as universities, charities, governments, major manufacturers, etc. I have skepticism concerning things appearing in the media. Over the years I occasionally have been closely associated with an event that eventually became a news story and reported in the press. Without exception, I have always found one or more major errors of fact in these articles. This makes me suspicious of the accuracy of the details of all media information.

I Know What a Majority of Observers Hold to be True

When a large fraction of people believes something to be true I am forced to strongly consider it and, in the absence of other information, accept it. I am usually uncomfortable with this approach. It is important to look at the group of people who are making a claim and judge them collectively as you would judge an individual. Judge them in terms of integrity, experience and intellectual capacity. I recognize that this is not always possible.

One thing that I know that falls into this category is my own mortality. This single item I rank as highly as I do the experiential. The one thing that I know without any doubt is that my physical body will not live forever. How do I know that? We all know that. We also know that no one will escape the eventual death of the physical body.

I Know What the Faithful Believe

My religious faith, or someone elseís, is a questionable basis for knowledge. Much of religious faith is based upon the interpretation of ancient books that are of questionable factual value, particularly in the details. Often the clergy feed the faithful with their interpretation of this information, making it conform to overall doctrine. Many fundamentalist religions have ignored or demeaned overwhelming, scientific evidence that has accumulated since the early church(es) was(were) organized that would modify the writings upon which faith is based. Frequently, persons making statements of religious faith are strongly and emotionally committed to their statements, making objective discussion nearly impossible.

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