Thursday, November 3, 2011

The Nature of Human Knowledge

As represented by their gestures, Plato (left) pursued
absolutism while Aristotle (right) pursued empiricism.
I disagree with Plato on the nature of human knowledge. Plato believed in a “transcendent truth,” an absolute knowledge that already exists in our “divine souls” (“Plato” 81). I don't, and here's why.

Biological and Technological Limitations

Absolute knowledge requires a reality that exists independently of us. But I don’t think we can ever know for sure whether or not we are perceiving a reality separate from us.

First, our biological constraints (e.g., eyesight, mental health, etc.) limit the information we perceive. For example, humans have a limited range of hearing that prevents us from detecting sounds above or below certain frequencies, and colorblind individuals cannot detect certain colors. These biological constraints prevent us from perceiving all available information. And even a mentally and physically flawless individual couldn’t process all available information every second of the day, at least not at this stage of our brain’s evolution.

Second, once our biological constraints filter the available information, our previous experiences and biases affect how we then process and interpret that information. This process further distorts the completeness and accuracy of the information. When a huge wolf spider ran across the inside of my windshield last year while I was driving home, my arachnophobia filtered out just about everything but the spider. I didn’t know which lane I was in or if there were cars around me; I just saw the spider inches in front on my face while I couldn't move.

In addition to biological constraints, Robert Scott asserts in his essay “On Viewing Rhetoric as Epistemology” that only infinity contains truth, since it also contains all experiences and possibilities. So, our finite experience prevents us from gaining absolute knowledge through infinite possibilities (136).

To be fair, an objective reality might exist beyond our perception, and our perceptions might align perfectly with that reality. But we cannot know for sure that we can perceive that reality, and if we cannot know for sure, then we cannot know whether or not we have absolute knowledge.

The Nature of Scientific Knowledge

If we cannot perceive a reality independent of our limitations, then even scientific theories supported by empirical evidence cannot represent absolute knowledge. Scientists, too, have constraints that influence the completeness and accuracy of the information they perceive and interpret. And although most scientists strive to remain objective, dominant social structures like the government often distort research via the incentives created by funding certain types of research and stating specific goals.

For example, a 2005 study in Nature revealed that 33% of the several thousand respondents funded by the NIH admitted to engaging in at least one of the top ten behaviors during the previous three years, including:

·        Falsifying data
·        Ignoring major aspects of human-subject requirements
·        Plagiarizing
·        Failing to present data that contradicted the scientist’s previous research
·        Overlooking others’ use of flawed data
·        Changing the design or results of a study in response to a funding source’s pressure (Martinson et al.).

Science cannot produce absolute knowledge when the human elements of science distort information.

Having said this, science as a discipline does bring us as close to absolute knowledge as we can get by combining collaborative inquiry, instruments that expand the scope of our observation and analysis, and self-correction. The reality created by science represents the most accurate reality we can perceive, given our biological constraints.


Thank you JT for giving me feedback on this topic!


Bizzell, Patricia, and Bruce Herzberg. “Plato.” The Rhetorical Tradition: Readings from Classical Times to the Present. Second ed. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2001. Print. 80-138.
Martinson, Brian C., Melissa S. Anderson, and Raymond de Vries. “Scientists Behaving Badly.” Nature 435 (2005): 737-738. Web. 3 November 2011.
Scott, Robert L. “On Viewing Rhetoric as Epistemic.” Contemporary Rhetorical Theory: A Reader. NY: Guilford Press, 1989. Print. 131-139.

1 comment:

  1. First, let me say that I like your post. It's well written and thought provoking. For most of my life I would have agreed with you that we can't know everything. However, I think there is an absolute reality--it just can't be perceived. You can't see it or touch it or taste it, but you can be aware of it. This is based on my own experience, through meditation and 24 years of trying to make sense of the universe. The concept of "being one" is pretty well known, but the part that most people overlook is that if we are one then we are not separate. I know that we are one because the idea and all its implications resonate with me down to the core of my being. That's where absolute truth resides--not in articulable expressions but in a sense of deep knowing. I've thought a lot about how to convey this to people, but haven't yet found a way. Words are defined only in terms of other words and so they cannot express ultimate truth. Think of this though: all things have a beginning. If you back far enough, you'll find a first. So, way back at the beginning of all things, there was only 1. A single, united thing, whatever it was. At that point, it makes no logical sense for anything else to happen--there are no outside forces cause change, and this thing is the single simplest thing there is, all one piece. That's reality as I see it.