I Know Nothing

Theories of Truth

Many of us spend countless hours trying to know something. We pursue degrees, we read books, we get mentors, and we actively pursue educational experiences. Many of us dedicate our entire lives to becoming pillars of wisdom and truth. But none of us can actually ascertain certainty. None of us can really know anything with certainty.

Usually, people have some naive theory of truth. They think, as a result of upbringing, that the world has unchanging properties which can be known through directly perceiving those properties, or at least reliably measuring the properties. We call this a “naive realist” version of truth.

But that is not the only theory of truth. Those of us who studied philosophy have already come across different theories of truth, and there are many theories to be studied. Some theories rely on reference to the world, some theories rely on analytical approaches, and other theories care only for thresholds inside math: i.e., p-values.

A reference theorist will only hold true the ideas which find reference to the perceivable world. In example, the proposition, “books contain curse words,” is true only when we can make reference to a book that indeed contains a curse word. That is a strong contrast to a more analytical approach. An analytical approach would believe the proposition, “books contain words,” is true if the definition of a book necessarily entails that they contain words. Ultimately, however, both theories are insufficient at obtaining certainty.

Though not all theories of truth are always after Truth. Some are instead in pursuit of being justified or reasonable, which is something slightly different than being true. For example, someone who has to guess between option A and option B for a correct answer can be reasonably justified in guessing option A, even if option B is the correct answer. So being justified and being true are distinguishable. Yet even then, when we separate truth and being justified, we still cannot know either. We cannot know if we are either justified or correct. Because to know either relies on our knowing something.

Now the reasons as to why we cannot know anything (which by the way, includes that very proposition) are very complex. I find, on average, it takes an hour of conversation to teach people why they cannot know anything. So I will not try here. Instead, you can learn why that is by reading these articles: what is the munchhausen trilemma, what is skepticism, what is a infinite regress, what is theory-ladenness, or by reading the book I wrote on the subject: Knowing Nothing.

Is Uncertainty a Cause for Concern?

What often comes after the assertion that we cannot know anything is essentially different forms of anxiety and absurdity. People either think the assertion is incredibly absurd or unpalatable. Some will try and say, “if that were really “true,” then it would be self-defeating, which is absurd” and others will say, “what is the point of reading or doing anything if we cannot know anything?”.

Both of these views, I believe, are misguided and based on presuppositions that are themselves not true.

On the one hand, absurdity itself does not necessarily entail unacceptability. Something being absurd doesn’t mean we should reject it or find it to be unacceptable. To do that would require us to suppose conditions for rejection, which would require us to presuppose some way of knowing whether something ought to be rejected or not. Which would miss the entire point in our conversation. So, someone finding the assertion to be absurd isn’t itself cause for concern.

On the other hand, people often become disheartened by their inability to know something, especially if they were more enthusiastic about the pursuit of truth. Someone who reads science textbooks for countless hours, in hopes of understanding the truths of the universe, will most likely no longer see the point to reading those books, since no one can really have a “truth”. In other words, each textbook is just a compilation of arbitrary assertions, each no more legitimate than the other.

Such circumstances, on the surface level, seem like good enough reason to become apathetic about reading. But those reasons are all loaded with presuppositions, of which are as arbitrary as all the theories of truth we have discussed. To see how, just ask: “why should someone read?”.

If your response is, “to learn truth,” then ask: “why is that a good reason to read?”. Ultimately, you are going to provide an arbitrary answer. This means, anyone who has a serious anxiety about our everlasting uncertainty is really someone who is reliant upon axioms that entail their anxiousness. Reading can be done for fun, science can be done for fun, but if those tasks are to be done because we want truth, then such a starting point would obviously entail anxiousness once the realization of our inescapable uncertainty becomes apparent.

So, to the question: is our uncertainty a cause for concern? Depends. If we presuppose that all pursuits of “learning” are for truth, then yes. But if we are someone who supposes all pursuits of “learning” are for fun, then no. Because we were never after certainty anyways.

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Ideasinhat is a business development analyst and longtime reader of academic literature. He writes books and essays on science and philosophy, and posts them to this website. The essays, as with the books, cover topics from psychology, philosophy, and cognitive science to economics, politics, and law.

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