HOW DO I KNOW?
A Starting Point For Knowledge

by James Craig Green


I EXIST.

I know this better than I know anything.

I don't have to prove this, or convince anyone else. This is not a general, far-reaching conclusion about the universe, but my unique, individual conclusion about me. It's my anchor - the starting point for all my knowledge.

I don't care if anyone else agrees with me, because no one else can know me as well as I know myself. I start with what I know best. Everything else is secondary.

I'm not sure you or the universe exists, but I know I do - at least for the moment. I can assume, believe or guess that things outside myself exist, and even that they may transcend my life. In fact, this assumption seems eminently plausible, based on my experience. But I cannot know those things with the certainty that I know I exist.

I EXIST.

Why worry about something as apparently obvious or trivial as this? Because most human knowledge seems to start somewhere else and ends up in confusion. From the philosophy of Plato to the science of Newton, from the geometry of Euclid to the angry words of Marx and Hitler - philosophy, science, language, logic, mathematics, art and beauty all contain confusion and unnecessary complexity. Everybody has an ax to grind. Everybody has a bias, depending on his or her unique knowledge built up from a lifetime's experience. And yet, both smart and dumb fools still search for the Holy Grail, the absolute truth, the one true version of reality outside themselves, which is "superior" to that formulated by others. For every theory, careers are launched defending it. In some cases, whole industries, nations and religions are developed to protect such theories. All because people refuse to see that each of us is unique, perceiving our environment from a different viewpoint than anyone else. They pretend we can know god, nature, reality, and other so-called "objective" things better than we can know ourselves.

I grow tired of philosophies endlessly debated with meaningless results, little practical value and no consideration for the simple observation that none of us know very much. I grow tired of the semantic masturbation that passes for "higher" forms of thought. I grow tired of so-called "scientists" who produce the results their employers desire in the name of truth and other such imaginary, yet somehow real, deities. I grow tired of reading the ancient, medieval and contemporary philosophers that sound good until I realize they all had a biased agenda, and then became slaves to it (even the great ones). One point of view, one vantage point, one agenda is all it takes to turn a brilliant thinker into a heap of eloquent confusion. I resent the fact that I have to wade through so much crap to find something worthwhile.

I don't deny others. I don't deny the universe, or existence outside myself. Nor am I arrogant enough to assert that the world outside is just a figment of my tiny imagination. I don't deny the usefulness of philosophy and science. But I cannot know any of this better than I know myself.

How do I know? I wish more people would ask this question more often. I know I exist because it is the thing upon which I can most often rely. Call it intuition. Call it innate knowledge. Call it an assumption. I don't care what you call it. But - I just KNOW, even though I can't adequately explain this confidence to others. I will let them choose and rank their own knowledge. Almost all the philosophy I've read is dedicated to starting from somewhere other than the unique biased self. And yet, this is where I live. It is, literally, who I am.

Everything I've learned, sensed and thought about tells me that reality appears to consist of wide, continuous ranges of things; not a neat package of discrete break points selected so that humans can better justify their prejudices. Some people gain popularity by dividing their biased perception of reality into convenient, bite-sized packages, and inserting their own labels, in the hope that others will shower them with gifts and praise (Iíve done this myself). And as with most other living things - reality, truth and a complete understanding is not nearly as important as the instant gratification that comes from inflaming the instant passions of other humans.

Flaming passions is very profitable. No wonder so many do it. Perhaps I'm doing it right now. Like any narcotic, it's tempting. It feels good right now, and I don't have to worry about later Ė I just do it.

It is so easy to sell quick, easy, "absolute" answers to others. It seems that most people will buy, sell, or compromise anything to avoid thinking for themselves. Arguably, guru worship may be the most successful growth industry of all time.

NEXT COMES YOU AND OTHERS.

Outside myself, there appears to be other stuff. I detect lots of other things, living and not, with my senses. I imagine other things with my mind, and I learn to interact with my environment, which I depend on to keep living. I have to breathe, eat, drink and have social relationships to get what I want and need. I am shaped by my environment (since I am part of it), but I usually don't understand it as well as I understand myself. I learned from my parents, teachers and others a variety of conflicting ideas, many of which were the "truth." But as I grew up, I noticed inconsistencies, doubts, fears and other reasons not to believe everything I was taught. Fortunately, I was encouraged to follow my own conscience, instead of adopting one readily made by others. My parents and others (especially TV commercials) may have programmed me in many ways I don't yet understand. I sometimes confuse appreciation for useful knowledge with the false idea that its source must surely be infallible, and the messenger must be competent. It is easy to assign credibility to questionable sources, as a wounded soldier assigns affection to a nurse - mistaking appreciation for love or understanding.

Habits, both good and bad, often seem to guide my daily life more than ongoing reflection and clear thinking. I strive to think more and react less. I often fail.

I know people close to me very well, and other living things like pets, plants and wildlife. I know my immediate environment better than I know far away places. I don't know strangers very well, even after we've met. But I often assume they are like me, or choose to stereotype them into convenient cubbyholes to make up for my lack of knowledge about them. I often make the mistake of expanding my limited experience into vast generalizations about people I don't know. I have no idea what human nature is, since humans are so varied and different. As soon as I choose some arbitrary words, definitions, or categories with which to describe other humans, it seems like I have to revise those words, definitions, or categories sooner rather than later. So, I return to myself, whom I know best. I am my own anchor, though I recognize my humble dependence on my environment.

NEXT COMES THE WORLD AND UNIVERSE.

I have knowledge of things I cannot see directly or up close - like atoms, molecules, unicorns, Captain Picard and galaxies. Perhaps I can know unicorns and Captain Picard better than I can know atoms or galaxies, since these two things are approximately my size, and I can relate to them more directly. I think, "Yes, even a fantasy about some one or thing like or near me may be more knowable than things farther away." To know things far away from myself (in size, scope or distance), I must depend on the words of others, none of which can be defined without circular logic. So, as I cautiously ventured outward from myself, I learned to trust external knowledge less and less. This isn't always absolutely true, but then few things are. I learned that to survive, I need to allocate my time and choices between competing alternatives. I also learned that most knowledge I have is associated with some confidence level, usually much higher than zero, but much lower than 100%. This is what got me this far - knowing that every piece of knowledge has an uncertainty with it, which with some luck and hard work, might be improved. This improvement in knowledge, from imperfect to less imperfect, is what science is supposed to be about, I think. Science doesn't establish "facts;" it improves confidence so that humans can act with a higher reliability in successfully pursuing their selfish goals. Finding "truth" too often destroys progress. There's no need to think anymore once you've discovered the "truth."

I am in awe of the breadth, extent and complexity of the world in which I find myself, taking most of this on faith in the opinions of others. I am constantly challenging my beliefs to see if they deserve to be continued. I believe that a small piece of the universe such as myself can probably never understand very much of the whole thing, though it's tempting to try. I guess that's why I liked building fast cars as a teenager and became an engineer. But I have no more reason to assume I can know the whole universe than an amoeba can expect to learn calculus. My place in the universe appears to be much less significant than an amoeba's place in human society - if, of course, I believe what I read of the opinions of others. My life is a constant interaction between my environment and me. Each changes the other, in an elegant, dynamic, continuous feedback loop. I am probably nothing more than a small piece of my environment, temporarily organized in some way I donít yet understand.

To me, a belief is a piece of information that I rely on. Some beliefs are based on what I would consider to be facts. Others are based on fantasies or the opinions of others. Reading books (even scholarly scientific journals) involves a lot of faith in the beliefs and opinions of others. I consider all knowledge tentative, until better knowledge comes along. All so-called "facts" are subject to change, rejection or greater certainty, depending on what I learn next. If I have a personal experience (what some define as a fact), that experience is limited to my senses, thinking and accuracy of measurement at the time. Someone else that experienced the same event might have better recollection, less bias and a more accurate account of the same event. But, to trust their account better than mine, I must be convinced that I was in error. If I don't have too much invested in my original belief, I might be willing to listen to other, perhaps more accurate, accounts. This is not a denial of my trust in myself, but only recognition that I am not perfect. Humans make mistakes - constantly.

KNOWLEDGE

Having tossed this confusing, contradictory, crazy word around a couple of times let me now define it. I like a friend of mine's definition the best: KNOWLEDGE IS ANYTHING A MIND CAN CONCEIVE. Some people want you to think that their particular brand of truth or knowledge is special, and deserves your adopting their thinking for your own. You may have gained tremendously from their insight, and now may be blind to their foibles or prejudices. They say things like, "knowledge is the part of that objective reality outside yourself that you have discovered with your senses." Well, this sounded awfully good the first time I heard it, but after a decade or two, I realized that this was just another preacher (blinded by arrogance) pushing a self-serving religion. I know myself better than anything. Whatever else exists is secondary, not only in importance to me, but ranked lower than the confidence I have in my own knowledge about myself. So, I guess this leads me to what some people would call subjectivism, though you'd better watch out for "isms." Just when you've found one you like, it turns around and bites you in the ass. "Isms" are fancy words people make up to get you go along with them. When some people lack answers, they resort to intimidation. Most of us would probably like others to be more like us, so we often disrespect their differing viewpoints and uniqueness. Projecting my view, opinion and bias onto others is a mistake Iíve made repeatedly. When others do this to me, I resent it, and may shut the door to things they have to say.

I have knowledge of things I believe to be true (i.e., that they exist) and I have knowledge of things that were made up. But I can never prove that something doesn't exist. That's for much better philosophers than I am who have time and tenure enough to delve into such important matters. I'm too busy trying to live a better life.

Craigness

The "ism" of subjectivity is both worshipped and reviled. To some, it is the most evil, dangerous thing infecting the human psyche. To others, it is a glorious journey into fantasy, mysticism, or understanding. To me, it's nothing more than the recognition that I know me best. In an attempt to avoid spreading bigger, mostly useless, confusing words (like epistemology), I will call my particular version of this "Craigness."

Craigness isn't for you - It's for me. If your name were John, then perhaps you would like to create "Johnness." But don't simply adopt Craigness because it sounds good. Do your own homework. Find your own truth, or philosophy, or whatever. But leave mine alone. I built it, and you can't have it - It's mine. Besides, like my skin or brain, it's designed to fit me only, and it's probably not good for you. The last thing you need is another guru, or someone who claims they know you better than you know yourself.

This short essay barely scratches the surface of what I find to be the starting point of knowledge - myself. Everything else is less important (to me), less knowable and less relevant to my life. I can speculate about galaxies until the cows come home. I can guess whether someone else is lying, crazy, stupid or right. I can make guesses, whether I call them assumptions, axioms, postulates or hypotheses. But to me, the only thing really self-evident is that I exist. The very best of my experience, belief and knowledge all comes back to this. It's the only worthy starting place I've ever found.

It's my window to the world.

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