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Absolute Knowledge

The best we know

Like Johnson I approach a stone and kick it. The shock on the toe of my boot convinces me that it is really there. And we have thoughts and make statements about reality that are more or less accurate or true. Absolute has to do with statements that cannot be wrong. That seems to be a good basis for understanding reality; that we build our understanding based on things that are absolutely true.

The search for those things that are absolutely true went on for a long time. It continues in some circles. It seems reasonable but the search turned out to be sterile. It never discovered anything not built into its assumptions. It is possible to say things that are absolutely true. The most common sort are tautologies. If I say 'one is one' then that is absolutely true but doesn't get us far.

t took Russell/Whitehead several hundred pages to prove that 1+1=2. And that might be absolutely true but most of us have to take their word on that. Most of us just take a definitional approach; that is, 2 is defined to what 1 + 1 produces.. And it definitions work well for many things. But they fall apart at the edges.

A 747 is an airplane. Is a helicopter an airplane? That depends on the details you include in the definition. And notoriously, no definition is ever complete. So this idea of airplane that seemed at first glance to be absolute is actually hard to pin down.

Math and logic are disciplines that deal quite a bit with absolutes. They do that by exploring the implications of complicated tautologies that they develop. They produce statements like e = m c^2 out of a series of mathematical manipulations and by gum it is found to correspond to reality with fabulous accuracy. We learn from it unlikely things like 'light always moves at the same speed' which we take to be absolutely true. And then people shake that up by showing instances where information moved faster than light.

So while math gives us knowledge of relationships that may be absolute but whose connection to actual relationships may be tenuous. Rather than absolute knowledge we have "the best we know".

We take numbers usually to be absolutes. 2 apples is 2 apples. But some numbers are called irrational because we know they are there but can't say precisely what their value is. Pi is an example. It's the ratio of the circumference of a circle to it's diameter. It pops up all over the place. It's value is: 3.141592653589793238462643383279502884197169399375105820974944592307816406286 . . . . to 76 places Note the dots at the end. They indicate that there are more decimal places that are not shown. You can find pi to a million places on the internet and it still ends with those dots. So pi is a thing that we take to be absolute but we don't know exactly what it is. We go with "the best we know".

Since I was young I've been fascinated with the way reality is made of atoms. I would look at the complexity of reality and marvel that it's all 'just' atoms. I was a deterministic reductionist (or maybe a reductionistic determinist - I forget:-) A big shock was to learn that atoms weren't the fundamental things. Atoms are made of subatomic particles. And those are made of quarks and all sorts of things Which begged the question of course of what those things were made of. There seemed to be an endless regression of levels. It seems hopeless to understand the fundamental level - the level that would replace the atoms in my old idea that everything is 'just' atoms. Later I became comfortable with it being hopeless to understand that level. But I've come to think that I don't need to understand that level. I take on faith that reality exists and that I can learn about it. I can do that without considering any sort of bottom level of reality.

Let's look at what absolute knowledge might be like in that context. Let's recall that we are talking about statements that can be more or less true. Dawkins speaks of a teapot orbiting the sun between Earth and Mars. Can we say absolutely that it is not there? I'd say yes - but my standard for absolute is 'the best we know' And really - even if the teapot was there, undetected forever, the absolute truth of it's existence wouldn't matter.

How pragmatic is that? What do you think?

Star I present regular philosophy discussions in a virtual reality called Second Life. I set a topic and people come as avatars and sit around a virtual table to discuss it. Each week I write a short essay to set the topic. I show a selection of them here.

I've been thinking and reading about philosophy for a long time but I'm mostly self taught. That is I've had the good fortune to read what interests me rather than follow a course of study. That has it's limits of course but advantages. It doesn't cost as much and is fun too.

My interests are things like evolution and cognition and social issues and economics and science in general.