What Can We Really Know?

The premises of knowledge have always been a question posed by humanity. In fact, the study of knowledge(epistemology) is so fundamental, that it is among one of four major branches in philosophy. One of the earliest and detrimental debates concerning this branch originated in the Renaissance, between the rationalists and empiricists.

In simple terms, the rationalists came to argue that knowledge can be derived from reason alone, while the empiricists argued that knowledge came from experiences. However, a question we are still trying to answer to this day is what exactly “knowledge” even means.

The Fork of Knowledge

Hume’s two-pronged fork

David Hume would come to create one of the most influential yet simple arguments for what it is that constitutes all of knowledge. And it comes in the shape of a fork. Hume would knowledge up into two categories and place them onto the two prongs of the fork. They are called a myriad of different names, but in this article, I will refer to them as deductive and inductive reasoning from now on.

Deductive reasoning describes the attaining of knowledge without any prior knowledge. The realm of mathematics would fall under this category. Numbers and values will never change, and 1+1 will always equal 2. Another example would come in the statement:

“All bachelors are unmarried.”

You don’t need to know the specific bachelors we are talking about, since the definition of the word “bachelor” already implies with it that they are unmarried. Since you don’t need to know any other information, this this type of reasoning is simple and the conclusions made will be certain. But what about the uncertain conclusions?

Inductive reasoning runs contrary to deductive reasoning, and the simple premise is making general conclusions about specific premises. However, the overarching assumptions made are that nature is uniform and that the future will be like the past. For example:

P1: I am human

P2: I have ten fingers

C: All humans have ten fingers

This argument is based on perception and experience. Although probable, it will never be certain, since there is no way any single person will have all the experience of a given argument. Even the conclusion made above is not always correct, as some people are born with more or fewer fingers. However, it is probable, due to experience.

However, it is essential to realize that these two types of reasoning are on opposite sides of the fork. Due to the very nature of how Hume defined this idea of knowledge, it is impossible to move from one type of reasoning to another. From that, Hume believed that it is experience that forms knowledge, since knowing something doesn’t tell you what to do or any conclusions to make.

The Fork is a Hoax

What I didn’t tell you is that this idea of knowledge, more precisely the assumptions made in inductive reasoning, is flawed. For example, if we stated that “it is probable that ____ is _____, then does that fall under deductive or inductive reasoning? Using the rules above, then it falls under deductive reasoning because even though it is probable, it is probably certain.

But the assumption that the future is like the past can work, but it falls under circular thinking. For example, our initial assumption that the past will work like the future is what makes us even create rules and definitions. So, it is from this assumption that Hume derived the assumption that the future will be similar to the past.

These are but two arguments against this idea of reasoning, but I still do believe in the utility of this thought process. It is this idea that we cannot reason without any experience in some cases that leads me into Hume’s second and famous postulation.

The Is-Ought Problem

If you know something, what should you do? This is the key empiricist argument posed by Hume, and it an argument that I believe, still holds true. The optimal outcome for each person will be different depending on their situation and values, so even the same fact can lead to different outcomes.

If I were to tell you that there was a frisbee on sale, what would you do? Some of you may go buy the frisbee, and some of you won’t. Both are valid actions, and whether you do one or the other will fluctuate depending on your situation and, more specifically, what you value.

And it is this very problem that helps to solidify me more as an empiricist. If you don’t know anything, then how will you know what to do? You will either be led by others or take knowledge from other experiences and try to apply them to the new task at hand.

A New Scope

The balance I like to make between empiricism and rationalism falls into constructivism. It functions as empiricism, but the innate knowledge or already known factors are that of biology. For example, when we are born, our mouths are basically fully developed, and they act as our hands, helping to map out our surroundings. This is why babies often like to put anything into their mouths, and this exploration factor is what leads to new experiences forming and new knowledge being formed.

Exploration and attaining experience and knowledge has been the fundamental process that all humans will go through and constantly do. Although sometimes you may experience failure, or face a challenge, you will learn greatly from it. Often times, it is better to make yourself a fool, than to do nothing at all.

“If you are not willing to be a fool, you can’t become a master”

- Jordan Peterson

Just trying to make sense out of all there is to know