How do we know?

18 Feb ’15 ~QofDay~ Know

How do you know that you know?

Too many assumptions in that question to answer it without unpicking them somewhat.

A full answer is extremely complex.

A part answer is that it seems quite probable that the concept of knowledge is largely illusion, a simplification of probability distributions.

It seems that we are evolved entities with many levels of information processing systems, from the intracellular up through many levels of nervous system and through many levels of brain systems to memory, language, distinctions, abstractions and conceptualisation.

It seems that we are each part of a continuum of cellular life that is some 3 billion years old, yet for each of us, our particular form of multicellular life started at the junction of an egg and a sperm, and our bodies have developed from that into a collections of roughly a hundred trillion cooperating cells. It seems that every one of us is vastly more similar than we are different.

It seems that the neural networks of our brains get some order from the selection pressures of the deep time of our evolutionary history. We can sense things like smells, tastes, sounds, sights, touch, magnetism, electricity, heat. Our brains come pre-configured with areas evolved for spatial planning, temporal planning, face recognition, language, etc; but it takes experience in the real world (whatever that actually is) to populate and train these areas.

As very small children we form very simple concepts – simple binaries (like hot/cold, heavy/light, sharp/smooth, sweet/sour, light/dark, and then expand them with simple declarative judgements like right/wrong, good/bad). These binaries are the simplest possible way of classifying the vast diversity we find ourselves in, thus in a sense, we have no other option but to start from such simplicity. And it is powerful for each and every one of us to see that simplicity for what it is (a simple approximation) and to move beyond it, as soon as possible – by about age 7 seems to be about optimal.

We don’t come with instruction manuals.

We get born into our realities, our cultures, and for the most part we just absorb all the language and concepts of our culture without question. We accept implicit assumptions as truths. Questioning, if it comes at all, comes later.

Most cultures have evolved explanatory stories about the nature of the reality in which we exist.

For most people, over evolutionary time, when faced with the complexity of life, it seemed like something must have made it – so people created the ideas and stories of gods.

At least 4,000 years ago various traditions arose that started to seriously investigate the world in which we exist, and the ways in which we can think. Most of those traditions made assumptions about the nature of knowledge. Most started by assuming that there was such a thing as truth, and that it was worth pursuing. And so a tradition of what was then known as “natural philosophy” was born, and continued.

One of the children of this tradition was a person named Francis Bacon, who is, in modern times, probably the founder of the scientific method – of asking questions, and rather than attempting to answer the questions by logic and argument, actually performing experiments and measuring what happened. This is essentially the scientific method, and the accumulation of sets of data, and the concepts and abstracts that have evolved to relate those sets of data, has given us the modern scientific understanding of what we are.

One of the things that any experimenter notices very quickly is that there are always errors of measurement. One can only ever be sure about something to a particular degree of accuracy. If using a pencil and a ruler and the unaided human eye, the maximum accuracy possible is about a tenth of a millimetre (roughly 5 thousandths of an inch).

We can get much more accurate by building instruments to give us greater clarity, and each new generation of instruments gives us not only greater detail in our view of reality, but also an ability to build yet more accurate instruments.

That process continued until we ran into a limit that was first well documented by Werner Heisenberg – that shows that at a fundamental level we may know either the position or the momentum of a particle, but not both. The more we know about one aspect of its being, the less we can know about the other.

This became known as Heisenberg uncertainty, and it is a profound limit on the idea of knowledge in reality.

Then a logician named Kurt Goedel (a personal friend of Einstein’s and respected by Einstein as the greatest living mind) developed a theorem that demonstrated that even if we know all the starting conditions of a system, and all of the theorems of a system, there will be truths about that system that cannot be proven from those facts. This became known as his incompleteness theorem, and demonstrated yet another profound level of uncertainty even in the most abstract realm of logic. It is, to me, perhaps the most beautiful construct of any human mind that I have encountered.

It is intriguing to me how the popular stories of science capture only a very tiny fraction (often misleading) of the actual stories of science. Take Darwin as an example. The idea of evolution by natural selection that he is famous for is perhaps the single greatest step in understanding what we are, and what we might be capable of, but what is commonly understood is only a very small part of the story. Charles Darwin was a member of one of the wealthiest families in England. He had enough money that he could, essentially, hire the best captain and one of the best boats and crews for his purpose, for five years, to take him anywhere in the world he wanted to go, and to wait for him while he went walkabout where-ever he chose. Not many people had that sort of opportunity. The understanding Darwin arrived at posed a great threat to the established social order of his day, and he delayed publication for decades, until a penniless explorer Alfred Russell Wallace sent him essentially the same theory – they both presented their papers independently to the same meeting of the Linnean Society of London in 1859. What few people realise is that it was Darwin’s cousin Galton who founded and promoted the idea of Eugenics that became a driving force (if largely invisible) in much of what happened over the next hundred years, including much of what happened in world wars 1 & 2.

While Darwin’s breakthrough was important, it was only one small part of the total picture of evolution, and it would take another 150 years to flesh out the major details, with many an interesting subplot along the way.

Darwin understood the power of competition, but failed to grasp the fundamental and necessary contribution of cooperation. It was not until Axelrod developed Games Theory in the way he did that the fundamental role of cooperation in the emergence of new levels of complexity began to be understood. And before that happened, we needed to understand the molecular basis of evolution – which is another interesting sub-story.

Watson and Crick are commonly attributed with discovering the structure of DNA, but there is a very interesting back-story. Watson and Crick had been working on concepts, trying models, but they were not disciplined experimentalists. The most disciplined experimentalist was Rosalind Franklin, and it was only when they managed (by not exactly straight forward or legitimate means) to acquire copies of her work, that they had sufficient information to enable them to make the model of DNA that they did. That she failed (and fails) to get the credit she deserves is one of the great travesties of the social side of science (and there are many others). Another aspect of that back-story of Watson and Crick is that both of those guys were terrified that the greatest chemist of his time (the double Nobel Laureate Linus Pauling) was turning his attention to the problem of the structure of DNA, and they knew they had to find an answer quick or he would almost certainly beat them to it – as a side note, Pauling went on to devote 30 years of his life to the relationship between cancer and Vitamin C.

Once we understood the structure of DNA, it did not take long to unravel how that structure became translated into proteins – in what became known as the central dogma of DNA, the triplet codon of base pairs translating to a sequence of amino acids. We have continued to find other mechanisms at work, and I strongly suspect that should I live another million years, I could learn a new and ever more subtle mechanism of influence within the chemical systems relating to DNA every week of that time, and there would still be more to discover – it seems that we are in fact that complex, and evolution has in fact selected for such subtlety and complexity on recursive scales that very few individuals currently have any real grasp of.

And it seems clear now that exactly analogous systems are at work in the realm of the evolution of behaviours and ideas – in what is the realm of understanding now known as mimetics.

So it seems clear, that starting from the assumption that knowledge is possible, we have been forced by both evidence and logic to accept the idea that very little can be known with certainty, and that most ideas come with real and testable uncertainties in practice.

I wrote a reasonably full enquiry into ontology and epistemology a while back that is on my blogsite.

It seems that one statement that we can be certain of is given to us by Descartes – “cogito ergo sum” – I think therefore I am. This seems to be undeniable in the sense that in the thinking of it, we must be some sort of something. We may not be sure about what we are, or where we are, and we can be certain that we are something. We may be the toy of some evil demon, or a computer simulation, or we may be what science tells us seems to be most likely – an evolved entity existing on the third rock from the sun – and we can never be absolutely certain which, and I am sufficiently confident that I have been willing to stake my life on the latter.

So it seems that in one sense, the sense of absolute knowledge, we can know very little, and nothing what so ever of this thing we find ourselves in called reality.

And in a more relaxed sense of knowledge, in the sense of things of which we are sufficiently confident that we find them useful approximations in a model of reality that allows us to function, then we can know a great deal, and in this more relaxed sense, most of what we know we learn from the work of others.

And the great philosopher of science Karl Popper showed long ago that science cannot prove anything in a sense, science can only give us probabilities about the likelihood of the utility of competing explanatory frameworks.

Science is about questioning.

Science is constant questioning, each answer (probabilistic as it is) leading to ever more questions, ad infinitum. In this sense, science is a journey, not a destination. One embarks on the journey, accepting that death is the only end.

So I have very little that is knowledge in the classical sense – perhaps only “cogito ergo sum”, and even that has uncertainties in each of the terms, and there is a hint of something certain lurking in the shadows.

And there are many things about which I have great confidence – sufficient to trust my life to, and there is nothing that is immune from question, should I be presented with evidence of sufficient quality.

[followed by]

Hi Bhatta

It kinda depends how one is trying to interpret Nietzsche’s “There are no facts, only interpretations”. If one tries to interpret that as a fact, it kinda misses the point.

I align with much that Nietzsche concluded, and I have a lot more data than he had – a lot more experiments as to the nature of matter, the nature of life, the nature of computation and systems.

So I can see a sense in which everything is interpretation, in the sense that it seems that all any of us get to experience is the model of the world that our subconscious minds assemble for us, from the sense data, distinctions, concepts and stories stored in our brains.

And it seems to me that the probabilities associated with any aspect of our understanding being closely aligned with what is actually present in reality varies greatly according to circumstance.

So in that sense, I can agree with Nietzsche, and he simply did not have most of the concepts that I have, they did not exist in his time.

[followed by]

Hi Bhatta, Octavian, OM and all,


To me, the passage you quoted kinda makes sense from a perspective, and from my perspective creates far more confusion than clarity.

To me, it seems clear beyond any shadow of reasonable doubt that there is a reality independent of our sensing it, and that reality has the properties it has in any specified place, at any specific instant (particular to place and time), yet we as individuals do not experience those properties directly.

It seems clear to me, based on the evidence sets that I have, that the qualia of existence that each of us as individuals experience is not a product of reality directly, but is rather the product of our awareness interacting with the model of reality that our brains create. Thus in this sense, our experience of reality is personal, it is an interaction of software on software in a sense, and is only tenuously related to the external reality, through the senses and memory and trained neural networks.

So while I can see hints of understanding that things are not what they seem in the Vedic thinkers, they did not have datasets, or the mathematical or systems tools, to enable them to model the systems at work effectively.

And I agree with them in a sense, in the sense that reality is complex beyond our ability to model it accurately, so that even the best models will be simplifications in some essential aspects, so only probabilistic in this sense, and not determinant (ever). This is equally as true of any individual within reality as it is of reality as a whole. We are massively large collections of hugely complex molecules interacting in thousands of different and significant ways simultaneously many thousands of times per second.

It is clear to me beyond any shadow of reasonable doubt that our awareness is the result of all that complexity, not the cause of it, and as such our awareness cannot possibly model it all accurately (however accurately we can model isolated subsystems of it). And I am equally clear that we have mechanisms for the software entity that our self awareness seems to be to influence all aspects of being, the model in our brains, the subsystems of our brains, and the wider shared reality of existence.

And none of us, not me, not you, not any scholar or Artificial Intelligence or anything else existent within that reality can ever know that reality with certainty; that much is clear from the logic and math of the systems.

And having said that, we can develop models that can be accurate to very high degrees of confidence about some aspects of reality, while other aspects are of a type that are forever beyond prediction (even in theory) – such seems to be the nature of systems – some classes of systems are computable and predictable while others are not.

So while it may seem that some of the ancient thinkers understood modern understandings, to me that is clearly not the case. It is clear to me that many mystics had intuitions about classes of outcomes, without having any real conception of the classes of systems and systemic interactions that give rise to those outcomes.

If one confines one’s investigations purely to the outcomes level, then one can be very impressed by much of ancient thinking. If one dives deeper into the systemic underpinning of those outcomes then the picture is very different.

And to be absolutely clear, my understanding is not a common one. Very few people in the real world of science that I have met share my views. My views are personal in this sense, and they are based on the evidence sets that I have, from the domains in which I have personal interest and experience (which is quite intentionally on my part far broader and deeper than is common – or even uncommon in the ordinary sense).

To me, my understanding is based in science, and it does not have agreement of the majority (or even a small minority – more like a tiny minority) of the scientific community. Most people have too narrow a focus in life to have access to the experience sets I have. I made the conscious choice to go for both breadth and depth about 50 years ago. So I am not rich in money, and I have a richness of experience that I am very happy with, and is very uncommon.

And while having that experience set aides with communication at some levels, it means that at other levels communication is highly improbable, bordering on impossible. All I can do is leave hints, pointers, that if one is prepared to put in the time and energy in certain domains to develop certain abstractions then those can be powerfully applied to other domains – and there are lots of them – thousands (from physics, geology, biochemistry, computer programming, logic, systems theory, mathematics, behaviour, psychology, politics, education, ecology, probability, games theory, etc).

So in a sense, each of the conceptual understandings that I have is like another sense. I see and hear probability distributions, systems, ecologies. My experience of being is, as far as I can tell, not at all a common one.


It seems clear to me that in the case of the thesis behind the Bourne Identity, the identity of Jason Bourne was as real or fictitious as any other in a sense. What was portrayed in one sense was the difference between the responses trained into neural networks, and the memories that one has access to and from which one constructs a model of self. Jason was struck by this disconnect. He could observe how he reacted in situations, but had no recall of how he was trained to react like that – so he could be clear that his memories were incomplete.

Our neural networks can be trained at many levels – not just physical reactions, but modes of interpretation, at potentially infinitely recursive levels. Those patterns are as much a part of our identity as any memories. Retraining those is something that allows us to define and create who we are – to a degree that nothing else allows. And it seems clear, beyond reasonable doubt, that there will always be aspects just beyond our grasp.


The demolitions that I have seen by philosophers of “cogito ergo sum” have missed the only sense in which the idea has any meaning to me, and it seems that those philosophers simply did not have the concepts available to them to understand that sense. So unless you can be specific, I cannot address that criticism.

As to methods of knowledge.

It seems clear to me that there are many forms of knowledge.

There is knowledge that is demonstrated by capabilities of pattern in time and space, which seem for the most part to be a direct function of training neural networks to respond in appropriate ways to appropriate contexts, and has little to do with conscious awareness other than the role of consciousness in identifying context. This can express in such things as riding a bike, or playing an instrument, or using any tool (including keyboards) or dancing or cooking or cleaning or painting or any physical skill.

These patterns are learned by doing, by repetition, by building in subtleties of context at ever more layers giving subtlety of response that is the hallmark of mastery in any discipline.

We can similarly teach ourselves conscious skills of dealing with pattern and logic, which are an analogue of the physical skills, in a sense of the way in which they involve neural networks, but which are operating in a non-physical realm (do not connect directly to the sensory/motor/proprioceptor systems of brain).

There is an intuitive ability that we all have. This seems to be an ability to recognise pattern at any level of abstraction that is part of the subconscious operation of the storage and retrieval systems that enable memory, that seem to be modulated through the Reticular Activating System of the brain (or an as yet unidentified analogue of that system) to deliver “intuitions” to awareness at various levels. Most people attribute this sort of understanding to higher powers, and it kind-of is and kind-of isn’t, because it seems that it is not anything conscious or volitional, but comes as a side effect of the use of memory. I came to understand how that worked in 1974, and have not been adequately able to communicate it to anyone else since, as it takes intimate knowledge of a range of concepts from biochemistry, neuroanatomy, computers and LASER holography, and try as I might, no one else has gotten it. And it is clear to me – one more aspect of my weirdness ;).

And certainly, heuristics (in the sense of shortcuts that actually work in practice, rather than detailed theoretical systems) play a huge role in many levels of organisation within our being – HUGE!!!

About Ted Howard NZ

Seems like I might be a cancer survivor. Thinking about the systemic incentives within the world we find ourselves in, and how we might adjust them to provide an environment that supports everyone (no exceptions) - see
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