Foundations of Human Knowledge

Descartes for the 21st Century

Descartes aim is, once and for all, to lay a lasting foundation for knowledge. To achieve this, he contends that we cannot possibly go too far in our distrustful attitude (Med. 1). Better to have a standard that excludes some truths, than one that justifies some falsehoods. (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)

The question Can there be secure foundations of knowledge can be approached from different angles that have their bearing upon different aspects of problem. In this essay I will try to face the problem head-on, tackling it in as simple and direct way as possible, so as to make myself easily understandable even to an interested layman. My own introduction to this topic has come through Douglas Hofstadter and Daniel C. Dennets most fascinating compilation The Minds I (1982). A particular issue discussed in that book, namely the brain in the vat scenario, has deeply intrigued me since I became aware of it and I take this opportunity to bring up that thought-experiment into a broader perspective. The brain in the vat issue is a simple variation upon some profound questions raised by Ren Descartes in the 18th century, in this essay I will present Descartes line of reasoning in my own words, adding to it some insights I have garnered through my general readings and reflections. I have asked myself what would I write if I were asked to contribute to The Minds I, and the result is this essay.

To believe or not to believe

How can we know anything for sure What is out there How can we know that what we know is knowledge and not just belief Many mystics and metaphysicians have reported experiencing the world directly  utterly bypassing the senses. But barring such drastic transcending experiences, the truth of which cannot be objectively ascertained, we are totally bound to experience the world via the medium of our senses and the mind. As a consequence of which the great epistemological question arises  what is really out there, what is there all around us in reality

We derive our knowledge about the world around us in four ways observation, testimony, deductive inference and inductive inference (Coady 149). But can we really penetrate the nature of the objective world in these ways By objective world is meant the world that may exist independent of our senses, perception, and mind.

Given that the mind is our only source of the knowledge of the world, (the sense organs can be simply seen as appendages to the mind), would it be possible to determine if the knowledge derived from our minds is actually grounded in reality and is not akin to some castle floating in air with no foundations Foundations imply solid, dependable, indubitable and irrefutable bases, and knowledge of course means knowledge of objective reality. Could the mind inherently be functioning as some kind of distorting mechanism, or is it faithful in reflecting reality In other words, can we believe our mind and the knowledge it brings to us The fundamental concept of strong foundationalism is obviously the concept of a basic belief. (Bonjour 6)

One of the first modern thinkers to grapple with this vast problem of epistemology was Rene Descartes who is regarded as a rationalist skeptic. What does skepticism mean in this context

Since at least the time of Descartes (First Meditation) in the seventeenth century there has been a philosophical problem about our knowledge of the world around us. Put most simply, the problem is to show how we can have any knowledge of the world at all. The conclusion that we cannot, that no one knows anything about the world around us, is what I call scepticism about the external world. (Stroud 1)

I am inclined towards skepticism, in the manner of Descartes, but do not hesitate to take it a little further than he does. In the rest of this essay, I will try to advance the case of skepticism through specific and easily relatable examples.

The foundations are founded on what

Normally, we tend to perfectly believe whatever we see. But our beliefs about the external world can possess the certainty of knowledge only when they can be justified by irrefutable evidence. As it is, our knowledge of the external world is purely inferential, derived through our senses and mind. All supposed evidence we have about the external world is provided by our perceptual experience that is to say, by how things look, sounds, smell, taste and feel to us.  Our experiential beliefs, however, can never logically entail anything definite about the external world, because there is no inherent and intrinsic logical necessity for there to exist an exact correspondence between our perceptions of the external world and the real world around us (to the extent that some such thing exists). No tenable logical inference can bridge the gap between the world around us and ourselves. As a result, there is no logical way to justify our core beliefs about the external world. We are not even in a position to assert the existence of an external world, as separate from our own minds.

When you know something you not only have an opinion, but that opinion is true that is, it coincides with reality. When you merely believe something but not know it, then it is possible that what you believe is not true but only exists in your mind. (Stewart  Blocker 170)

To move from the status of mere believing to the level of true knowing, our knowledge is required to have foundations. Foundations are needed if one seeks to ascertain the nature of reality as it is and is not content with a makeshift understanding of the world. But can these foundations ever be really secure, impervious to all possible objections Can we ever come to believe our beliefs about the nature of reality  attained through reason  without the risk of fooling ourselves Can rational belief rest on a foundation strong enough (OHair 381)

This is where skepticism comes in. Skepticism is in fact not just some school of thought but a fundamental reflection about human existence in the universe, the essence of which was well presented by Descartes in his First Meditation. Descartes begins his meditations on a very simple premise of back to basics

Some years ago I was struck by how many false things I had believed, and by how doubtful was the structure of beliefs that I had based on them. I realized that if I wanted to establish anything in the sciences that was stable and likely to last, I neededjust once in my lifeto demolish everything completely and start again from the foundations.  (Descartes 1)

And he sets out exploring the various grounds of skepticism, in order to arrive at some point of certainty, if possible. Descartes says what if we were all living in a dream Not just in the Shakespearean sense, but in reality.

Stuff of dreams

We all must have dreamed dreams that we thought were so absolutely real that not even the faintest suspicion of doubt arose in us as to the reality of our dream experiences  until we awoke.  This single argument in itself is enough to cast a heavy shadow of doubt on the reality of our existence and give a jolt to the assumed foundations of our knowledge. Yet Descartes attacks from various angles the seemingly unshakeable certainty we have in our own existence and the existence of the world around us, questioning the reliability of sense perception and so on.

There is such a thing as hallucination for example, people under the effect of certain psychedelic drugs very frequently see all kinds of weird things that exist nowhere except in their fervid imagination. Hence it is theoretically possible for whatever we perceive as the world to be nothing more than a hallucination too. Moreover, we see magicians making us see things that are not there, and not see things that are there. Illusion and hallucination are no small things either, confined to the context of drugs, magicians and such passing things.

The movie A Beautiful Mind depicts the real life story of a Nobel-prize winning mathematician and economist as he suffers from an intense form of schizophrenia he lives in the objectively real world (relatively speaking) which is at the same time co-existent with a world of his own fabrication. The most intriguing aspect here is that the audience would not know that the protagonist was interacting with characters that purely emanated out of his mind until it would be revealed to them much later on in the movie. The real world and the imagined world merge seamlessly into one another.

Hallucinations can in fact be even more powerful than this, and I will get back to the subject at a later point in this essay. Suffice it to say for now that senses are very liable to be deceived, and hence cannot be trusted. The mind cannot be trusted either of course, as we have been discussing, nor the countless memories that populate it. Memory is indeed a notably unreliable mechanism.

Dream, hallucination, illusion, delusion, and as we shall presently see, SF-type make-belief scenarios  the very possibility of these things undermines the certainty of our perceptions and knowledge. Descartes goes on even further.

Daemons worlds

Descartes tries to refute the certainty of mathematical equations such as two plus two equals four. What if, Descartes asks, the whole world is run by an omnipotent evil Deity who could be having fun deliberately misleading our logic

It is difficult to conceive that two plus two may not equal four in any world, still it is not at all difficult to conceive the malicious Daemon, as Descartes calls him. Descartes Daemon need not be evil or omnipotent, he could be some great scientist or a team of scientists doing a grand experiment  with me. This is the crux of the matter how can I know for certain that I am a real person in a real world as I would like to believe myself to be  and not just a disembodied brain pickled inside a huge vat and connected to innumerable electrodes that are constantly feeding reality into my brain Such a possibility cannot be altogether precluded and once we take it seriously there is no way to go around it. We must face it head on. As Hofstadter (473) observes, disembodied brains have long been a favorite philosophical fantasy  but what if the fantasy were the actual reality

We could all indeed be bodies floating in sealed containers experiencing reality solely by aid of some infinitely complex software program plugged into us (as in The Matrix movie scenario). If this sounds far-fetched, we must remind ourselves that it is not remotely as weird as, for example, the whole universe taking birth from a dot-sized bubble (the standard Big Bang model of the universe). As the old adage goes, truth is always stranger than fiction. 

If we were actually some such entities caught up in a virtual reality unbeknownst to us, we would still perceive (or be made to perceive) a perfectly solid and realistic external world exactly every bit same as the normal everyday world we have around us. The intelligence that has programmed our reality could be of such higher order that we would not be really able to perceive much in the way of discrepancies, such as the walls around us in the house crumbling into a rapid flurry of numbers due to some software glitch

By virtue of reality

In 1950, the pioneering AI scientist Alan Turing devised simple criteria, constituting the famous Turing Test, to distinguish between a computer that has evolved artificial intelligence and one that has not (Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy). A computer or robot that could deceive a person that he is dealing with another person like him on the other side of the wall, while in reality there is only a computer there, can be justifiably considered a machine with a sufficient degree of simulated intelligence to pass for a human being. This is the benchmark for AI. By the same token and simply reversing the stakes, is it at all conceivable to devise some test to determine the reality quotient of our reality

I think it is not possible because in theory anything that is possible in reality can be created in virtual reality with no loss of quality. There is simply no way one can conclusively prove that we are right now not living in a world of virtual reality. We normally take the realness of our reality as a matter of faith, since we may think that though such VR scenarios are possible they are not very probable.

But is it so

Space, time, and mind

Before we proceed further we must take into consideration the three fundamental bases in which our reality is embedded space, time and causation. I will touch upon the question of causation at the end of this essay, but considering space and time we must concede that, in theory, they both are infinite. We do not really need any philosophical arguments like, for example, those provided by Kant to accept the fact that time really cannot have any beginning. Until fairly recently though, scientists were adamant that time began at t  0 during the Big Bang. But nowadays it is widely accepted that our universe could have emerged from some other meta-universe. Time did exist before the Big Bang after all.

Similarly, though physicists have known since the time of Newton that space cannot be infinite  because if it were so we would be receiving light radiation from an infinite number of stars and our nights would be as bright as the day  we cannot conceive of a boundary for space beyond which there is no space at all. According to the latest conclusions of physicists, the universe is curved upon itself, we indeed live in a closed universe and yet no one can deny that there could be many more universes beyond our own.

If we accept that the spatial and temporal dimensions of existence are intrinsically infinite, a few things become obvious. We can now easily conceive of some intelligence developing on some planet at some point in the infinite stretch of time which is capable of developing artificial worlds of some sort or other, either make-believe virtual worlds or even actual worlds with real time and space. In fact if our human race keeps on evolving, perhaps within a million years or so from now we ourselves could have acquired enough technological know-how to replicate reality with a high degree of fidelity. And a million years is simply nothing even by local Earth standards, without bringing in the universe and whatever lies beyond it. And then imagine what we would be capable of doing in one more million years thereafter

My argument delineated above is an extension of the famous brain in the vat thought experiment, which is of course a modernized version of Descartes Malicious Daemon proposition (Wapedia). Descartes though invoked his Daemon half-playfully, as Gellner puts it. However, with our modern exposure to science fiction and knowledge of the limits to which technology can take us, it would be nave to dismiss the actual feasibility of a Descartes Daemon lightly. Descartes himself was forced to give the matter some considerable weight 

But what was in part  not altogether  a mere supposition, almost an intellectual coquetry for Descartes, soon became a reasonable, indeed a compelling suspicion. (Gellner 15) 

Gellner goes on to note, remarking upon some bleak tone that has crept into Descartes musings, that There can be no mistaking the sense of distrust and disorientation. Now, it is not just a matter of distrust, suspicion or some such philosophical luxury that philosophers can indulge in, but a matter of near-certainty that the world around is greatly different and infinitely more complex than we generally perceive it to be in framing our worldview.

We can only be certain of our uncertainty, and echo with Socrates in saying I know that I know nothing. Perhaps Socrates in his legendary wisdom intuitively perceived that the foundations of knowledge really cannot ever be secure when he uttered his signature statement. Socrates can be considered worlds first skeptic, for him the world rested on a gigantic question mark, and it would ever be so.

Although my argument here involves the Daemon paradigm and all that goes with it, it moves a little further. My emphasis here is this our minds cannot conceive space and time to be anything but infinite, and at the same time our minds are utterly incapable of comprehending infinity and eternity. For instance, if we try to imagine a span of hundred trillion trillion trillion years as being equal to a fraction of a second  which is how it would be for time in the context of eternity  our heads would spin And this is only a mild way of putting it. However, reality  the very same reality that we are part of right now  is founded upon and rooted in infinity, in all dimensions. To hope that we would ever be able know and understand the true nature of this reality would be truly presumptuous. The foundations of our knowledge could only be tenuous and tentative at best, no matter how much we come to learn by way of scientific discoveries.

Intimations from the beyond

My argument so far ran within the confines of a purely scientific outlook of the world. Although to Descartes his Daemon was mainly a metaphysical hypothesis, to us with our SF-educated sensibilities, it is very much within the realm of possibility. It is not only feasible, it is highly probable. However, if we are not reluctant to bring in some metaphysical concepts too into this matter, then the basis of our notions of reality become even shakier. Mystics throughout the history, while belonging to widely divergent traditions, have unanimously maintained that the nature of reality is fundamentally unknowable (hence the name mysticism). Eastern Mystics particularly have insisted that the whole world is a dreamillusion or Maya. The point to be noted here is that to these mystical thinkers utterances to this effect were not suspicions or suppositions as it was with Descartes, but plain assertions based on their direct experience.

Further on, if we bring in esoteric, occult and paranormal elements while considering the bases of our beliefs of reality  things such as astral realms, alternatives realities, higher dimensions, higher selves and so on  the confusion is vastly exacerbated. Even without venturing into the realm of the paranormal though, just sticking to the domain of science and what is scientifically conceivable, there are certain concepts like time-travel, parallel universes, dark mater  dark energy (which together compose 95 of the universe) and so on which can lead to a grave sense of disorientation in us, again to put it mildly.

Here, a particular mention has to be made of the concept of unexplained phenomena or anomalies. Our scientific understanding of the world often advances through investigating what may seem to be slight anomalies. In the early 20th century, for example, a slight discrepancy in the orbit of planet Mercury was still left unexplained. In trying to solve this, Albert Einstein overthrew the whole space-time edifice of the then existing physics, discovered General Relativity  and our total outlook of space and time changed forever. At the present time, our world abounds in anomalies and unexplained phenomena. Perhaps the most prominent of them is the subject of UFOs. In the last century there have been thousands and thousands of sightings of UFOs which were authenticated but could not be explained away. Countless ordinary people who have absolutely no reason to dissimulate have recounted their elaborately detailed stories of encounters with alien spacecraft and even alien beings. And yet there is not a single piece of solid evidence which can irrefutably demonstrate the existence of any advanced civilization beside our own. This is a great paradox.

It would seem like ordinary people everywhere in the world can become suddenly susceptible to most realistic hallucinations, the reality of which they can defend to their deaths. This makes us wonder, is there a hidden faculty in the human mind that can spontaneously trigger powerful hallucinations in otherwise completely sane and normal people, elaborate hallucinations which cannot be distinguished from reality But then very commonly a UFO experience happens to more than one person at a time. It is difficult to conceive here how all the minds of all the people involved in a UFO event can switch into the hallucinatory mode independently of one another. This leaves us with only possibility. Our perceptions and reality are most probably being manipulated by beings from another world or another dimension. Or else, the UFOs that were witnessed could be remotely operated holographic projections. In any case, considering all these factors, there is increasing likelihood that versions of Descartes Daemon scenario are actually impinging upon and unfolding in our reality in real time.

Not only inductive reasoning points in this direction but also deductive reasoning. According to very conservative scientific estimates, there are at least 50,000 inhabited planets in our own galaxy. People generally fail to realize the incredible vastness of our galaxy. We see a picture of the Milky Way in a book and would then think that one of dots in this corner is our sun. In reality though, if the sun were the size of that dot or slightly bigger, the length of the galaxy would stretch from the earth to the moon It is simply immense. There could be any number of life forms developing in this starry space. A significant number of these could have evolved into highly advanced civilizations. Now, as any civilization advances technologically, more and more emphasis is shifted from work to play or entertainment. So, could it not be that we, being a relatively primitive civilization, could have become playthings for one or more advanced civilizations in our galactic neighborhood  

We can only meditate on the possibility, continuing the tradition of Descartes. And possibly we can go much farther than him.

Closing in upon the truth

Descartes begins his meditations by taking a soaring flight of imagination, but unfortunately he is not able sustain the flight for very long. In a desperate quest to clutch on to something solid, some irrefutable basis, he brings in the notion of I very arbitrarily, then goes on to talk about God too It would seem like his skepticism was too much for him to swallow. However, the idea of cognitive foundationalism into which he breathed life is very much valid and relevant today, and should play a vital role in our intellectual and scientific investigations of our world (assuming the world is ours). The doubts he gives rise to are by no means outdated today, yet they need to be elaborated upon and updated by infusing into them radical insights obtained from the scientific understanding we possess of the world today.  For example, Descartes says our memory could be unreliable, today we realize how much it can be so. Through hypnosis or other methods, our actual past can be neatly erased and a fake concocted past can be planted in its place, and we would not suspect one little thing if this was done efficiently enough.

In the late nineteenth century, some scientists thought that they were very near to the point of knowing everything about the world that there was to know. Then came Relativity and quantum mechanics which totally shook up the very foundations of our knowledge of the physical world. Since then, interestingly enough, it appears like the more we have come to know about our universe, the more puzzled and perplexed we have become. However, this could be a transitional phase, and we may one day succeed in laying our understanding on more solid foundations, since the search continues and certainty is certainly the end toward which we are constantly striving. But what if certainty is intrinsically impossible, owing to something faintly along the lines of the famous Heisenbergs Uncertainty Principle

Granted that we appear like being a step closer to comprehending the nature of reality with each fundamental breakthrough in our understanding, and many new breakthroughs are of course going to happen in the future. We would also like to believe that the truth will not forever remain hidden from us, even if we were in some existential situation analogous to the brain in the vat scenario in one way or other the truth would be out eventually. In such an eventuality, would we not have made another big step closer to the elusive truth

In the final analysis though, no matter how closer we seem to be getting, we cannot ever penetrate the ultimate nature of reality   for the simple reason that we do not know the first thing about it. We do not know and cannot ever know how something came from nothing, how existence came to be at all. This is the ultimate imponderable and it will forever remain that way, we can keep pushing the boundaries, but we will not be able to get any closer to the final one. In this sense, both our knowledge and our existence rest on an eternal imponderable.

Cogito ergo sum, confidently declared Descartes. Indeed, we would like to think we are, but maybe the existence itself is not.  


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