Limits On Knowing



Christopher Ebbe, Ph.D.     6-15

 ABSTRACT:  People strive to know things that they believe will be useful to them, and we assume that we “know” a multitude of things, but our knowledge is always partial even when useful.  Structural and existential limits on human knowledge are explored, and psychological reasons why we insist on knowing even when we don’t know are explained.  Some ways to live with “not knowing” are explored.

KEY WORDS:  philosophy, knowledge, truth, epistemology


Many of the things that we say we “know” are assumptions or good guesses based on observation but are not actually proven and certain.  We are quite ready to assume that what we “know” is true when in fact we are ignoring important limitations of our formulations.  We do this because we feel more secure if we believe that what we know is true (and therefore that we can rely on that knowledge when we need it).  When we are able to put what we believe to be true in words, we are often so impressed with ourselves that we simply assume that what we have said must be true.  We also accept many not-really-truths as truths because we follow the rule of “good enough for government work,” in which if something seems true enough to rely on generally, usually through repeated experience, then we call it true.

We all believe that the sun will come up every day, based on a great deal of human experience, but we can imagine events that might preclude the sun from coming up, such as a collision of the earth with some other large object in space, so even this small piece of our knowledge is not absolutely certain.  In reading this, most readers will brush that fantastic possibility aside, saying “that will never happen,” which is actually a statement about what the reader believes about probability.  It’s true that the probability of such a collision is very, very tiny (especially in the short lifetime of those now living), but it is not zero.  We cannot say truthfully that it will “never” happen.   Once again, most of what we “know” is actually knowledge that is only “good enough for government work” (i.e., good enough for our human, daily predictions about what it true).

The reason for exploring this issue is that our need to “know,” even when we don’t really know or no nothing, leads to considerable human conflict, affects others unfairly at times, and cuts us off from improving the accuracy of our knowing.  We fight over who is “right” in our descriptions of reality and our predictions about reality.  We insist that our children believe what we believe, and we shun adults who believe differently, all because to do otherwise would mean recognizing that we don’t really know with as much certainty as we would like to think we have.  We say that in this country we have freedom of belief, but in practice we reject and punish those who believe differently.  A few centuries ago, most people believed in Satan and witches, and those who were thought to be witches were often burned alive.  (The fact itself that people do differ about major beliefs and assumptions about reality should suggest to us that we can’t prove much in those areas of difference.  The fact that huge numbers of people believe in other religions than our own should suggest to us that there is truly no way to know for certain who is “right.”)

In addition, we fool ourselves when we pretend to know when we don’t, so that we impair our own decision-making by not recognizing all of the possible outcomes in play.  We limit our creativity by walling off large areas of interest and action, because we must protect our self-styled “knowledge” from threat.  And by believing that we can know perfectly (discover absolute truth), we make an unrealistic demand of ourselves (since this is actually untrue).  We could be more comfortable with our human existence, more accepting of ourselves and others, and make better decisions if we could let go of our desire to know things for certain.

Every society needs certain shared beliefs in order to organize itself to work well, and people in every society must conform to certain ways of doing things in order to live together safely and productively (drive on the proper side of the road, speak the same language, agree on a political system, etc.), but this necessary conformity should not be taken to imply that a society’s beliefs are true or that it’s customs are based on truths.  Our seeking to know and to understand things, together with our great ignorance and our preference for “knowledge” that also makes us feel better, has allowed us to make up a considerable amount of what we claim to know.


Most of us have things that we claim that we know and claim that are “true” but that no one can check on or prove to be true, including ourselves.  When we say “I love you,” only we know what we mean by “love,” and only we know what the circumstantial limits are on that statement.  We often wish to believe that that emotional position would be lasting (that I will also love you tomorrow and next year, etc.), but we don’t state those qualifications.  The object of those feelings may “know” that I love him or her, but in fact he or she can never be certain of it and cannot know all of our internal reservations and qualifications on the statement’s truth.  Far be it from us, though, to recognize all of this, because that might keep us from believing our comfortable illusion that love can last forever just because we want it to.

We each mean something slightly different from each other by many or our words, and no language has enough differentiating terms to help us to be more precise (viz., Aleuts having more words for different conditions of snow than English).  How do we communicate, then?  Rather poorly, as you will notice if you pay attention.  Consider the amount of bickering over what we say to each other every day, when the recipient doesn’t grasp all of what the sender intends due to inadequacies in the sender’s wording.  Family life for many families consists largely of this bickering.  Remember how many “clarifications” workers get, either in memos or verbally, because the first communication from the boss was incomplete or otherwise flawed.  The important point is simply to realize how imprecise our communications are.  We should strive to do better, and most of us could do better, but the natural limitations of our language (and therefore of our brains, since if most of our brains were capable of greater differentiation and a larger vocabulary, we would already have moved forward on those things) mean that we will never be able to express complex truths completely.  We do vastly better than other species at communicating complex things, and it is a key part of our adaptation on the planet, so we will continue to try to do it, even if we don’t improve.  Nevertheless, we should realize that our knowledge is limited by our inabilities to put things accurately into words.

Another limitation on our verbal expressions is that we can never fully put our experience into words.  Our experience goes forward without stopping, and it is multi-sensory.  When we put some of it into words, we stop our attention to the flow of experience (so that we miss some of it), and we almost always focus on only part of the experience we are trying to describe (only some of the sensory experience or its sequelae in the brain).  Therefore, if we take that description of our experience as a basis for argument or discussion, it is only a partial representation of what we are using for evidence or proof, and our conclusions are of necessity limited estimates of what we hoped to prove.  Our memories are similarly limited.  We only record in memory part of our total experience, since to record it all would be too much for the brain to handle.


Seeking true knowledge clearly requires knowing what we mean by “truth.”  Knowing the truth has always been of interest to human beings, because it can lead to more accurate predictions of the future and therefore to more effective goal-oriented behavior, as well as to greater acceptance and lessened anxiety about the difficulties of living.

“Truth” is our word for assertions about reality that can be relied on as accurate and dependable.  We used to depend mainly on the edicts of authority with regard to what to think and believe, while now we formally subject many opinions to the proof method of science (careful observation and the confirmation of measureable observations by a number of different people in order to reach reliable consensus).  Most individual human beings do poorly at telling truth from falsity using their own resources.  (Google may help with facts, but facts do not build a meaningful or satisfying life.)

The history of truth is a long story of corrections to inaccurate understandings (the earth is flat) and the creation of new and hopefully more accurate understandings (the universe is expanding; the material brain is responsible for experience and the self; quantum mechanics is more true than classical mechanics).  We have a series of truth claims (claims about what is true), each followed eventually by some sort of dissent or new and contradictory data and knowledge, followed by revised truth claims, etc., etc.  In order to anchor and communicate our “knowing,” we make statements to express that “knowing” and claim that they are true (to give them some sort of trustworthiness).  This cycle of truth claims should also alert us to the fact that many things that we think are true are probably not true (since most of them will be changed in the future), and in order to be as aligned with reality as we can be, we should be careful to identify all “facts” or truth claims that only seem true because of how we currently understand everything else and label them as “probably true” instead of “true.”  To pursue this, we can assign a probability of being true to each of these facts or claims.  Thus, the claim “the sun will come up again tomorrow” might get a 0.9999 probability of being true, while “there are many parallel universes” might get a 0.15 probability, depending on your understanding of astrophysics.

We strongly tend to believe that the information that we have about ourselves, others, and the world is correct, even if we have no confirmation of that information.  The bottom line is that much of what you think you “know” will be found to be untrue or incomplete by future generations.

As our knowledge of ourselves and others deepens, we come to realize that since everyone has a somewhat different experience of life (as well as a different body to work with in life), each person has his own view of reality, which is not the same as that of any other person.

From among the various conceptualizations of truth (correspondence, coherence, constructivism, consensus, pragmatic, minimalist, pluralist, formal, etc.), the common sense view is a correspondence point of view of truth—that truth lies in an accurate correspondence between statements or propositions and the reality that they attempt to represent.  Since this is the view of truth that is most useful to people in a practical way on a day-to-day basis, and since it is the view of truth that science uses, the correspondence view seems like the best touchstone for accuracy, and it keeps us from forgetting about usefulness.

The question of whether “something” is true applies only to our descriptions of reality.  We do not ask whether an orange is true, but we can question the truth of the statement “this is an orange” or that of the statement “all oranges are orange” or that of the statement “God created oranges.”  When we assert that something is “true,” we require that it will always (in other times and contexts and to all other people) be an accurate description of reality (when it is properly understood, with its appropriate qualifications).  Since human beings have imperfect brains and always have imperfect understandings of reality (viz., classical mechanics vs. quantum mechanics), we must usually be satisfied with statements that are as close to true as humanly possible.  Often, human statements are incomplete—i.e., do not specify assumptions and conditions under which the statement will be true.  The statement “we can start a fire by putting a match to wood” is true in this sense of completeness and non-misleadingness only if the wood is dry and of a size and type of wood that can be ignited by the flame of one match.

For a similar reason, no argument that goes beyond the use of Venn diagrams can prove anything beyond a reasonable doubt.  Any such argument depends on its given bases (assumptions), which would themselves have to be proven beyond a reasonable doubt before the current claim could be evaluated, and, if the claim involves any constructs worth talking about (love, democracy, fidelity, compassion, love, justice), their definitions will inevitably be imprecise enough to call the overall argument into serious question.  (In the rare circumstance where the assumptions and definitions are made perfectly clear, then an argument could possibly “prove” something worth knowing.)  This should not dissuade us from discussing important issues, but we should recognize the limits of what can be determined.  (Venn diagrams are a visual method of keeping track of elements that can be properly assumed to be separate from each other by definition, from those that are related.)

Some statements are perfectly true, given the definitions of their terms and the explication of all of the assumptions behind them (Socrates was a man; all men are mortal; therefore Socrates is mortal), but most of our understandings of reality are only partially true, mostly true, or sometimes true.  We can say with certainty that “steel will melt if it is sufficiently heated,” because we have observed it to happen many times, we have never observed it not to happen, and we have a reasonable theoretical understanding of the molecular actions involved.

In the correspondence view of truth, the term “reality” includes all that we deem to be “real,” and “the truth” or “the real truth” is essentially the same as “reality” when reality is accurately understood and described.  “The truth” applies both to the observable, physical realm and to matters on which we cannot reach provable conclusions (since our assertions are still either true or not, even if we never know whether they are true or not).  If something is true, then it is true not just for those who think it or believe it but for everyone else as well, whether or not they currently realize it.  (An individual or a group may have its own version of “truth,” but this should be understood as only its unique understanding of reality, which, if different from another group’s understanding of reality, is probably only partially true.)  Reality exists independent of human beings, and questions of truth still apply if no human beings are involved.  It is true that if a tree falls in the forest after human beings no longer live on the planet, pressure waves in the surrounding fluid (air) will be created (assuming that the earth still has an atmosphere), even if there is no human being present to turn these into a “sound.”

Human beings often avoid knowing the truth and settle for lesser degrees of truth when they distort what they could readily know about reality.  We use various means of distorting, including denial, suppression, repression, sensory distortion, purposive logical errors, making up false explanations, and attacking those who voice views of reality that we don’t like.  Much of what we think and believe is affected by our distortions.  We distort reality when we believe or present to someone else a description of reality that we know or should know (could readily know) is not the description of reality that is most likely to be trueWe “tell the truth” (as best we can) when we present to someone else a description of reality that we believe to be the most accurate description of reality that has been achieved up to this time.  In distorting, we either ignore certain contrary information so that we can believe what we want to believe, or we present a description to someone else that we know to be incomplete or erroneous (and that we usually hope will be misleading to that other person).  The latter is commonly known as lying.  Ignoring or purposely distorting information to oneself to ensure a certain outcome or belief for oneself could be considered lying to oneself.

In an effort to be egalitarian, many compassionate people these days are fond of identifying “his truth” or “her truth” when referring to what a given person believes to be true, but just because someone has done his or her best to discover the truth and now believes or even “knows” certain things, this does not at all indicate that those beliefs or that “knowledge” is true.  Others are fond of asserting their equality by claiming that, correlated with “everyone is entitled to his own opinion,” everyone’s version of the truth should be considered to be equally likely to be true.  This is false as well, since the measure of truthfulness is the correspondence of a person’s beliefs with reality, as best we can understand it at that time.  The ultimate effort to avoid questions about truth is the assertion made by some philosophers that there is no reality (e.g., that we are all experiencing our own dreams all the time), but the correspondence between many of the perceptions and understandings of things that multiple people have and the fact that we can to some extent compare and correlate our “dreams” indicate that our dreams are rather similar and that this state of affairs is likely to exist only if there is some “master dream” that was probably concocted by someone or something that/who exists in some sort of reality, even if it is a reality that we human beings can never comprehend.

The truth is often different from what any individual or group asserts about reality (Communists are evil; Aryans are genetically superior; being baptized is necessary in order to go to heaven; God is love; non-Catholics will not go to heaven; dogs will go to heaven; President Reagan was a great man), and often there is no evidence of the truth of these assertions or beliefs. “Scientific reality” is what is currently believed to be true after unbiased observations by multiple competent observers who also compare a finding rigorously to the current understanding of reality by science.  “Theories” are assertions about reality that may or may not be true but which provide understandings and predictions about reality that can be discussed and investigated to see whether they prove to be accurate.

Sometimes we “know” things about ourselves or others with considerable certainty—so much so that it seems like “truth,” but, of course, the only way to arrive at the closest that we can come to the truth or reality is to seek “tested reality”—that version of reality that is produced by using intelligence, objectivity, careful observation, and consensus among people who are sincerely looking for the truth and who have removed from the discussion their personal preferences for what reality is or will turn out to be from considerations about truth.

Looked at in context, truth can be seen to be relative to the degree of precision used in its determination.  It is true that human experience of the sun coming up in the east does not guarantee that it will always come up in the east, since huge meteor hits on the earth could conceivably cause the earth to cease turning, in which case the sun would only “come up” once a year (assuming that the earth stops rotating but continues to revolve around the sun).  In the same way, for many things that we think or believe are true, circumstances can be hypothesized which could make them untrue, but these hypotheses are extremely unlikely, and more importantly, given the stability of most things in human experience, it is quite possible to arrive at understandings that are “for all practical purposes” “true” in our current lives and will be true until we die (and quite probably for eons to come as well).  So, if one wishes to call the truth as we currently know it “truth conditional on current quantum mechanical circumstances,” “truth conditional on current astronomical circumstances,” “truth applicable for human beings at their current state of evolution,” or some other such label, to do so would be appropriate, since this reminds us of the contextual limitations of our knowledge.  However, given our human limitations in observing and thinking, our short lives, and the stability of atomic, quantum, and astronomical conditions, the truth as defined above can often be determined, is useful, and is very close to being perfectly true, and any more perfect truth would not be any more useful to us.

Truth is always dependent on the accuracy of the information that we have or can obtain, but within our own internal functioning, the enemies of truth are (1) ignorance and (2) purposive avoidance of the truth.  Children often deny the truth about their parents (about being treated poorly, mistreated or even abused), because to admit this truth would result in considerable anguish and inner conflict.


Most of us in this era are enamored of scientific knowledge, believing that science has ways of proving things beyond any doubt.  Science, however, is at root simply the procedure of subjecting what we think we know to defined, empirical tests and repeating this until everyone agrees that the result is accurate.  Science can repeat a procedure or experiment a number of times, and if these all produce the same result, then we say we “know” something for certain.  Actually, we can never know whether if we tried it one more time, we would get a different result, which would change our “knowledge.”  The important point is that scientific truth is what we can agree seems true based on observable evidence, and it may or may not be true.  The fact that the best scientists in the world agree on something is not proof of truth, though it might be sufficient for the finding to be “probably true.”

The other procedure that science uses when possible is to check on whether what we observe is consistent with how we say we understand the thing.  If it is not consistent, then we usually struggle to create another theory or explanation before we are willing to say we “know” that thing.

The findings of science, therefore, are limited by practicalities (we can never measure things exactly, even though with modern technologies, we can come pretty close to exactness, at least in terms of what we currently view as possible) and by our limited current understandings of things.  When it was proposed, based on some observed evidence, that the earth was not flat, that idea was resisted not because the observations were flawed but because they contradicted what many people believed to be true knowledge at the time, and this was upsetting to them.  The general consensus only changed when a new explanation of things was constructed.

Modern science has helped us to utilize many things that even scientists still can’t actually “see,” such as electricity and atomic power.  What you learn in high school or college about how electricity works or how atomic power works (those diagrams in your textbook) are made up to help you get an idea of the best that our science has come up with to understand those things, but the actions portrayed in those diagrams and explanations have never actually been seen or observed by any human scientist.  We are very prone to assuming that things “must be” as we explain them, and it is easy to forget that these are hypotheses and theories, rather than actual facts.

The debate over global warming and our human impact on it is another illustration of our limits.  The predictions of the degree of global warming are based on computer models of what we believe has happened in the past.  If those models are accurate predictors of what will happen now, then we have some serious warming problems.  This is all that science can give us.  These predictions could be wrong, but scientists estimate that the probability of their being wrong is quite small.  If their predictions are generally right, and if we don’t act now to at least slow global warming, then our agriculture will become more difficult (with some global starvation to follow), while if we go with their predictions we could limit those negative effects by changing our behavior now.  If their predictions are wrong, then we actually have no idea what will happen, and we could go to a lot of trouble and expense correcting for something that isn’t a problem.

The question of whether human behavior is driving global warming is similar, with scientific projections based on assumptions and models that could be wrong (even though it is undeniable that humans are putting more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than ever before).  To look at it from a more abstract level, though, we do know that energy is never destroyed, and since we human beings are putting a stupendously greater amount of heat into the world (heating our homes, running our factories, running our cars) than the world used to receive each year from human activities, we are for certain heating up the world (because the heat radiating from the world into space and being absorbed into the earth’s interior is less than the heat we are producing), but the rate of heating can still only be estimated.  The point here is not whether we are contributing significantly to the current apparent warming but that human beings are always operating on assumptions and predictions that are never certain.

Scientists are limited, too, by being “just human.”  They want deeply to discover and “know” things, and they are subject to distorting what they have actually found for the sake of glory and fame and competition with their fellows.  Also, all of us, including scientists, generally limit ourselves to what we experience as human beings (as if that were the whole of reality).  We speak as if “light” is all there is out there in the way of radiation, when light is only a tiny part of the frequencies of the various waves that are going in all directions in the universe all the time and passing through our bodies all the time without our awareness.  “Light” is only the tiny part of that radiation that our eyes have gained the ability to use for informational purposes.  Astronomers are very aware of this issue (the colored pictures that you have seen of galaxies out there in space are not actually that color but have been colored so that you, with your limited human vision, can see something in the picture), but scientists not dealing every day with radiation won’t be as aware of it.  Other scientists might do better in getting at the whole truth if they thought more about the totality of radiation rather than just about light.  Once again, our interest in truth only extends to the parts of it that directly affect us, and of course this is where the bulk of our interest will inevitably be, but reality is not limited to human experience, even if as humans we care only about truths that relate to human experience.

Obviously the limitations of our language pose other limits on the truth of scientific claims.  If we test whether people love their spouses using their answers to the same ten questions (asking, in different ways, whether they love their spouses), then for that experiment, spousal love is defined by those ten questions, rather than by the definitions of love that any of the participants would use themselves if asked, and we are only justified in stating whether or how much those participants love their spouses if we refer only to that ten-question test of love and do not generalize our findings to any other types or aspects of spousal love.  So, the results of that study should be reported as “If we define spousal love by these ten questions, then a sample of spouses reports that…..”  It would not be proper to say simply “A sample of spouses reports that…,” but this is the sort of report of “scientific” findings that you get in the media all the time.

This is a key criticism of findings in the social sciences, where we attempt to deal with constructs like love, belief, democracy, and cooperation, for which every one of us has slightly different personal understandings.  Unfortunately most social scientists do not restrict themselves to their actual results, wanting them to mean more than they really mean scientifically, but this only eventually casts ongoing doubt in the minds of the public about their findings in general, just as changing results over time in drug and nutrition experiments (salt, cholesterol, butter, eggs) show us regularly that we can’t always trust medical research either.  Scientists dealing with rocks and chemicals do not have as many of these complications to take into account.


Our “human nature” disposes us to distort our understanding of the truth, including making up explanations and “facts” to fill in the gaps in our understanding where we actually know nothing.  We do this in order to calm and assuage our own emotions, particularly our anxiety when we don’t know enough to make good choices in daily life, our anxiety concerning the unpredictability of life, and our unhappiness about life’s less desirable aspects—most notably poverty, mistreatment, and death.  Even though the Bible says little about Satan and how he operates, in order to explain their bad behavior, some people have elaborated the idea of a Devil that constantly tempts us to misbehave, and they use that to excuse their own misbehavior.

In the past, when little was known about human beings at great distances from ourselves, people made up stories about what strange people or fantastical creatures lived in those other parts of terra firma, because the (presumably) known is always less fearful than the feared unknown.

The theories of modern day physicists about the origins of everything and the nature of the cosmos are another example of our wish to know and our willingness to make things up.  Anything can be proposed (multiple universes, the non-existence of time), as long as it is not grossly inconsistent with some of physics’ mathematical descriptions of the universe (which again are not consonant with and cannot be compared with our human experience of the universe).

We all grow up with damaged self-concepts, since we all find out early that many things that are quite natural to us at that age are completely unacceptable to our parents.  We must learn, often through great angst on the part of all involved, to eat “properly,” eliminate “properly,” use the same language as those around us,” sleep when we are supposed to, etc., etc.  As a result, we doubt ourselves considerably and realize how much power adults have over us, and most of us become dedicated to being “right,” not making mistakes, not angering others, and cravenly seeking any understanding, acceptance, and encouragement that we can find from others (or from the beliefs that we or others have made up, such as “everything happens for a purpose” and “you can accomplish anything you want to, simply by continuing to try.”)  Our adaptation to this pressure to conform is most commonly fearful, but some of us, in reaction to that fear and to the pain of being subjugated and forced to conform, adopt an aggressive stance toward life and toward others, in an effort to “make” them “take it back” and accord us the praise and status that our infantile grandiosity would have preferred.

In the name of intellectual freedom, we feel free to believe anything we want to believe, even if it flies in the face of the evidence, as long as believing it makes us feel better.  We, of course, do not acknowledge that making ourselves feel better is the purpose, and we adopt all manner of rationalizations for why we believe what we believe.  Most U. S. residents believe that the United States is the “best” country in the world, because it makes them feel good to believe this, even though they know almost nothing about other countries and therefore can’t reasonably compare them.  Most people believe that being convicted of a crime “proves” that the accused did the crime, even though modern scientific evidentiary aids such as DNA are showing that a fair number of convictions have been wrongly determined.  Most people believe that they (and their children) are above average in intelligence and in their understanding of others, but given how an average is calculated, only half of all people could possibly be average or above.  (This purposive willingness to distort shows that emotional barriers to knowing the truth must be dealt with before people will be willing to deal with the truth.)

From an atheist’s point of view, religious concepts give another example of using unsubstantiated beliefs to make ourselves feel better.  Believing that someone or something is in control of the vagaries and problems of life (since we know for certain that we are not in control) helps us to feel less anxious and more hopeful.  In early childhood, most of us believed that our parents were in control and determined everything that happened to us, but as we gained adolescence we realized that they were not in control and were “only human.”  Therefore, wishing to have an idealized figure in charge, whether or not a loving God exists, we will almost certainly make up concepts of gods and their relations to us, even though we have no concrete evidence of their existence.  We then spend a great deal of time convincing ourselves that what we want to believe is true (God has a purpose for everyone; God will take care of us; God has given us the beauties of nature; we are created in God’s image; great evils and bounties are God’s way of punishing or rewarding us; if we just follow God’s guidance, we can have eternal life; the ways of God are mysterious; etc.).


The significant limitations of our knowledge and our knowing should be clear from realizing that (1) our observations are limited (we only live in a few places and only live one lifetime); (2) even the observations of scientists are limited, since in every experiment, a special definition is used for the variables being observed, which, in the non-physical sciences, never captures the full meaning of the concept being investigated; (3) our language is limited, since we don’t have very precise words for everything; (4) each of us means a slightly different thing by many of our words; (5) our skill in expressing what we want to say is generally low; (6) we rarely take the time to really understand what others are saying, since we don’t have time to explore sufficiently and since if it’s good enough for government work, it’s good enough for us; (7) we are so in need of certainty that we are ready to make up explanations or understandings for things we don’t know; and (8) for the sake of our emotional needs we are ready to distort what our observations and experience are telling us in order to create frameworks of understanding that make us feel better and legitimize our emotional gratifications.

We are smart enough to be able to monitor our search for knowledge sufficiently to correct for the first seven of these difficulties (although most people are not even interested in trying, and to do so takes a considerable amount of time and effort).  The reason for this is that to fulfill number eight, we would need to do a bit of self-deceiving (fooling ourselves), which may obscure our vision even if we are trying to understand how we are distorting to take care of our emotional needs.  The former difficulties we can solve simply by taking enough time and employing enough honesty, but correcting for number eight requires that we give up distorting for the sake of our feelings.


For several thousands of years philosophy was what we turned to for discovering the truth (at least the non-religious truth).  Even today the arguments of Socrates are very impressive in this regard, but even Socrates appealed to assumed virtues and made up things when he needed to without showing evidence that he knew that he was only hypothesis-building.  Modern philosophy has to some extent recognized that every effort to know the truth is flawed (viz., the critique made by post-modernism), and it has focused on trying to learn as much as possible from analyzing and critiquing every philosophical argument, without much hope of finding final answers.

A possibly fruitful activity generally neglected by philosophy is understanding philosophical  formulations through understanding the set of experiences of the philosopher that make his formulations “reasonable” in his own context, and understanding how his formulations both stem from his emotional state and serve to change his emotional state.  We might hope that we could ask philosophers to do that for their own formulations, just as we would all be more mature and wise if we could ask the same of ourselves with regard to every one of our beliefs and assumptions, but this is a skill not encouraged in our competitive culture with its emphasis on convincing and “winning.”  To accept that one’s formulations are inevitably incomplete or logically flawed would be the kind of humility that we would expect of the very wise!

Religion is another source of knowledge that we have relied upon for eons, though most religions limit themselves to providing knowledge through interpreting what are assumed to be texts of wisdom or divine inspiration.  The problem with this, regardless of how wise or inspired those texts are, is that every human question must then be answered in such a way that it does not contradict the key beliefs of the religion.  Thus, Catholic theologians struggled mightily to deal with practical considerations (the Virgin Birth, the miracles of Jesus, the resurrection of Jesus) as well as with more philosophical ones (the problem of evil, the Trinity) in ways in which the answer was to an important extent predetermined and could not take full account of human knowledge and experience, since some basic beliefs (God is love; the Last Judgment will provide justice; Jesus died for your sins; God is omnipotent and omniscient) could not be contradicted or brought into question by the answers.  Other religions have different limitations on questioning and knowledge, but the process is the same.  Even Scientology has its supernatural assumptions that cannot be called into question.  Those who do not abide by the limitation of not questioning key beliefs are labeled as heretics and are in some faiths summarily killed.

The problem here is not so much the omniscience of God as it is the attempt by the Roman Church to claim that it is omniscient, which, as a human institution, is unlikely (as amply demonstrated in its history).  Confucianism and Buddhism may be the best examples we have of religions that are less interested in conformance and heresy, but even in Buddhism we have lately seen nationalistic sects that claim superiority over other beliefs and condemn believers in other faiths.

Our parents seem like fonts of wisdom to most of us when we are little, and if we could understand all of the sources and reasons why we know what we know in the way that we know it, parents would probably be the primary sources for most people.  Even children who rebel thoroughly in adolescence usually turn out to believe as adults pretty much what their parents believed.  Unfortunately some children, out of loyalty to parents, shy away from knowing anything that their parents don’t know, which restricts their own searches for truth.  Unfortunately the incredible complexity of the society we have constructed has made all of us feel inadequate in the knowledge department, and many modern parents feel quite unable to counsel their children and are much less likely than parents in the past to pass on their knowledge to their children with authority or certainty.

Presidents and generals have sometimes been seen as sources of knowledge, mainly because of the mistaken idealization by many people of anyone who is rich or famous (viz., the naive wish for football players to be “role models” for children).  Given the status of U. S. politics today, in which candidates try to be elected by convincing the greatest number of people that they stand together with those voters on important issues (almost always without actually revealing what they do think or believe, in order to avoid negative impressions), leaders can in no way be seen as sources of knowledge.

Schools are of course sources of knowledge, although our “culture wars” have pretty much caused schools to become sources of facts (or what are presumed to be facts) rather than providers of discussions of concerns, emotions, and values that could lead to wisdom.  Even university professors are facing strident challenges from students simply because the students see things differently, which is threatening the universities’ traditional position as a place where knowledge can be created through discussion and debate.


It is fair to conclude that we “know” quite a bit at a level of certainty that is useful to us in our efforts to survive and thrive, although most of this knowledge is uncertain.  The key implication of recognizing our limitations is that if we could all give up our hopes of certainty, then we could allow others to have their (uncertain) opinions, too, without being as upset about them as we currently are.   We could stop obsessing about “who is right,” by recognizing that everyone is “right” to some degree, depending on the nature of his/her experience and his/her application of his/her intelligence and judgment (unless, of course, he or she is purposely lying in order to get something).  We could also focus on developing the skills to make informed judgments about the likelihood of any presented claims or assertions being true (even though we would not feel the need to argue about them).

This is not to take an “everyone is right and no one is wrong” position, since each of us must choose the bases for every action we take, and we will presumably want to base our actions on what is most likely to be true, regardless of what others are doing.  It is simply suggested that recognizing that everyone may be wrong (including ourselves) makes it less meaningful to figure out who is right and who is wrong.  The focus should be on one’s own efforts to find out what is most likely to be true.

The fact that we don’t and can’t know things for certain does not need to stop us from doing our best to find the truth.  We should simply we do our best to find the truth but at the same time know that we won’t have the full and final answer.  We should all do our best to determine whether what we know is really true (or at least as true as we can make it), using all of the means that we have to do this, since basing your life on the closest you can get to truth will result in a better life than if you don’t even try or if you simply accept what others have told you.

The two biggest tools for determining the likelihood of truth are consistency with other knowledge (both our own and that of others) and careful observations to confirm our hypotheses.  If you have seen friends make a mess of their lives by being “free” and doing whatever they feel like doing, then you will know that assertions that such principles will lead to true happiness or a good life are simply false (and you will not have to try them out yourself).  Even if you are enmeshed in the results of your society’s worship of material wealth, if you know from reading (or perhaps travel) that large numbers of people in other societies seem to be happier than people in your society by living by other priorities in life (family, wisdom, group identification and welfare?), then you will know that your society’s worship of material wealth is not producing the greatest possible happiness that it promises.  Of course, you will subject these conclusions to the careful examination and tentativeness that you apply to every claim, including your own, but finding different sources of the same evidence can help you to be confident enough in your conclusions to base your life on them.  (A complete list of considerations in determining “truth” can be found below.)

Secondly, knowing that most of our knowledge is not certain should give each of us pause in asserting what we know, asserting that what we claim is true, and asserting that someone else’s knowledge is false simply because it is different from our own knowledge.  The “truth value” of knowledge is better determined by using consistency, observation, and the other tools described below, rather than basing truth on who said it.

This humility becomes more difficult as the elements of our “truth” mean more to us.  Religious belief may be very dear to some persons, and they may claim fiercely that they “just know” or “absolutely know” that their beliefs are true (and that others’ are false), even though they actually have very little or no evidence to support what they claim (except for the fact that many other people believe the same thing, which of course is not actually evidence of truth, as we can see in the facts that (1) many people also used to believe that the earth was flat and (2) large numbers of people with other religions believe something different).  Parents whose children are accused of very bad behavior may claim vociferously that those accusations are false even if they know nothing about what actually happened.  If we could all feel this humility, realizing that we don’t know many things for certain, it would help us to avoid many conflicts, both personal conflicts and conflicts between nations, and it would help us to cooperate more in making our perceptions of truth as truthful as they can be for human beings.  We could focus together on figuring out what is the closest to truth that we can get, rather than debating who is “right.”

Acknowledging repeatedly that what they say is not certain might seem inconvenient for scientists or philosophers (and priest and theologians), but it might also allow them to work together more comfortably in seeking what is as close to truth as we can get, in contrast to debating about who or what is right.  An in-depth examination of why people have come to the conclusions that they have come to, in terms of their overall life experiences, can usually make what they believe understandable to others, and people doing this together forms a milieu in which all can learn and in which finding commonalities comes naturally.  This humility could set a good example for the public in general and could lead to less strident reactions on the part of the man in the street to peoples who act different or believe differently and therefore to fewer wars.

Accepting that our “truth” is not certain allows us to ease up on challenging every truth claim that we believe is not true.  We can make our own determination without the added stress of whether we are going to openly disagree, and instead take the things that others say that help us in our own determinations of truth, while leaving the rest behind.

Accepting that our “truth” is not certain, and seeing how often human beings try to get what they want by deceiving others, we would be motivated to be more honest with our fellow men and women, openly identifying our own doubts and the weak points in our arguments and claims (without being asked or interrogated).  Perhaps this should be a requirement for every editorial and op-ed piece in our media, so that they could then contribute to the search for best answers rather than serving as a venue for competition among ideas.

We frequently avoid seeing the truth (the most likely truth) in order to avoid emotional pain, depression, and hopelessness, but seeing the truth (and not distorting it in order to feel better) does not need to have this result.  Accepting that what we believe to be true is not certain does not change the usefulness of what we already have “known” and how we have used it to make our decisions.  It is just as helpful to us after accepting that it is not actually certain as it was before accepting that proposition.  Continuing to act on what we think we know will produce just as good results as it used to, as long as we act with courage and reasonable confidence.  (Some compensation in this regard might be necessary if one needs to overcome a greater tentativeness after acknowledging that his knowledge is not certain.)  Accepting that we don’t know for certain also allows us to accept further advances in determining the likelihood of something being true, and it allows us to relax about the fact that many other people may not agree.


If a person is willing to learn from new information and to learn from finding out about her avoidances of the truth, then she could follow the guidelines below regarding the process of figuring out what is most likely to be true.  Human beings rarely know the absolute truth, so we are always in the position of doing the best we can.

If these principles are applied honestly and sincerely, you will get as close to the truth as we human beings are likely to get.  Be patient and tolerant.  It takes time and effort to question what you have believed, what everyone else believes, and what your culture believes.  The bigger your base of reliable knowledge gets, though, the faster you can assess and establish what is likely to be the truth.

1. Learn more about how to think accurately and apply what you learn in all areas.  Always define your terms carefully.  Assess the accuracy of your information, and don’t make conclusions that aren’t supported by the best evidence available.  “Try out” all of the likely conclusions to see how they fit with what you already know relatively accurately and to see what emotions they engender in you.  Ensure that your conclusions about what is true are not being arrived at to make yourself feel better or to make it more likely that you can get something you want.  Take a course in logic or in philosophy, as these will show you more about accurate thinking.

2. Examine anew every sensory perception, thought, feeling, and memory that you have.  Question each one to see whether there are reasons not to believe it that you have been ignoring.  (Did my dad really beat me, or did he just terrify me?   Do I really simply hate my boss, or do I actually kind of respect him at the same time?  When I feel scared of my wife, is she really that dangerous, or am I perhaps reacting to memories of my mother?)   Ask yourself if you have any evidence to support each of your beliefs.  Evidence may be in the form of your own careful observations, observations of others whom you trust (either personally or in books) and whose observations in the given instance are likely to be accurate, the findings of science, or the wisdom of institutions that are dedicated to knowing the truth.  Evidence for most things should be based on several (or even many) confirming repeated observations, rather than on only one.

3. Be very careful about definitions when examining a proposition or assertion.  There are many, many definitions of “love,” “freedom,” “better,” “perfect,” etc., etc., and if you don’t ask or explore this, you and others will often be attempting to communicate with different underlying assumptions.

4. Don’t accept your own, your family’s, other peoples’, or your culture’s assumptions about reality, without examination.  (People from other cultures are dangerous.  Strangers are dangerous.  A free-market economy is always the best.  God actually guided the hand of every person who wrote every book of the Bible.  A foetus has a soul from the moment of conception.)  Assume that every perception and every interpretation of a perception may be distorted, and check every one of these as closely as you can.  Be skeptical but unbiased.

Before you make an important conclusion, review the assumptions on which it rests.  (If you concluded, based on your experience of being emotionally abused by your parents, that everyone else would emotionally abuse you in a close relationship, that conclusion would be in error.)

5. Identify all of your self-serving distortions–the ways in which you make reality into what you want to believe or will justify your inappropriate behavior (e.g., I’m better than he is, so I should be the starting quarterback and not him).

6. Accept that your emotions or emotional reactions to things do not necessarily guide you to the truth.  Sometimes our emotional reactions are simply telling us to avoid and therefore to avoid learning more because the truth would be unpleasant (e.g., I feel scared around him, so he must be bad; I love her, so she must be “the one” for me; etc.).  Emotions do have information for us and do guide us, but it is best to examine them and compare their information to what we “know” otherwise before acting on them.

7. Notice any reactions that you have to a reality perception or description of reality that indicate aversion to that view of reality and a preference to avoid it or reject it.  These reactions will tempt you to distort.  (If you are angry at those who believe differently than you do, perhaps you’re actually unsure of your own beliefs.)

8. Identify the reason for your aversion or avoidance.   You may find it to be threatening, unpleasant, hurtful, disappointing, confusing, calling your beliefs or adaptation into question, suggesting a change in your behavior that would lead to fewer gratifications, etc.

9. Notice the “holes” in your awareness–the things that you are not aware of or avoid.  (I wonder why I never think about my family.  I wonder why I just can’t see it when others accuse me of being self-centered.)

10. Gather accurate information about the issue, and be very careful about the reliability of your information. Just because your parents said it or it’s on the internet or in a book doesn’t mean that it is true or that it is the most accurate information currently available.  Much of what is taken to be information in the world is biased by the person’s emotions or by what he or she wants to believe in the first place, so it is important to be careful.

11. Use the consistency of your experiences over time (after purging them of avoidances) to establish observations that are firm enough to use in constructing a fact or a description of reality.

12. Check out whether a perception, thought, or feeling is consistent with your other senses and understanding at that time.  (When I think of getting closer to Joan I feel scared, but if I think about it further, she isn’t doing anything that would indicate danger.)

13. Check out whether the experience of others is consistent with your own.  Be especially careful in your use of language when you do this, because people often mean different things by the same words.

14. Use cultural experience and concepts–the wisdom of the past–as a check on your observations.  People and their basic needs, emotions, and thought capabilities have not changed much in the last thousand years.

15. Find out whether other cultures have come to the same conclusion about the claim in question.  If they have not, then you (and your culture) may be engaging in distortion.  Just because your culture believes something does not make it true.

16. Once you think you have a statement of reliable knowledge, try to think of any example (person or situation) in the world that does not fit your conclusion.  If you can find even one such example, then your conclusion is wrong and needs further refinement.  It is especially useful in this regard to consider what other people are doing around the world, since if you confine your checking to your own culture, then you may conclude that the conclusion is correct simply because it is consistent with everything in a culture that already believes that conclusion.

17. Keep track of how you know each thing that you know.  Based on the history of how you “know” each of the things that you “know,” keep track of the degree of certainty with which you “know” each thing (and don’t assert more certainty than is justified).  (I think I see enough evidence in the world and in life that God exists to organize my life around that belief, but I still have no direct experience or evidence to “prove” it.)

18. Employ a healthy skepticism about how you interpret your own experience, as well as being skeptical about how others do this, too.

19. Pay attention to your inner voice or inner wisdom–that part of us that has some intuitive awareness of the truth and of when we are trying to fool ourselves.  Cultivate that part of yourself.

20. Ask others whose reality perceptions and honesty you trust to give you their opinion about the matter in question.

21. Strive to be honest with yourself, even when you are alone.  Most people find it easier to distort to themselves when no one else is involved (although the agreement of others helps greatly to establish and maintain group distortions).

22. Strive to know yourself well enough that you know your motives and what you hope to get out of each situation.  Using this knowledge will help you correct for self-serving distortions.  (I know that I tend to inflate my abilities, so I should re-examine whether I can actually do this new job before I accept it.)

23. Check out how accurately the understanding of reality in question predicts other realities.  Are its predictions consistent with what you know otherwise?  This is often done by looking at history and what has happened in the past when people have assumed this same thing to be true.  (Has having government and religion joined together for societies led to healthier behavior and happier people than having them separated?)

24. Examine the impact that a given understanding of reality has had on the lives of everyone affected when people act on this understanding of reality (or predict as best you can what the impact on everyone would be if this understanding of reality were acted upon).  (Did heavier emphasis on conformity and on everyone believing the same thing lead to people enjoying relationships more or did it lead to more distrust?)

25. Ask yourself if you would say or believe the same thing if you didn’t care about the outcome for yourself.  (Would I really claim that our team is better than theirs if I didn’t want to win so badly?)

26. Imagine yourself saying the same thing or expressing the same belief and then adding to it an explanation of your motives.  This also will help to identify your self-serving interests.  (I want the family to go to church today, but really I myself “need” to go because I’m feeling guilty about what I did this week.)

27. When you cannot determine whether something is true (or likely to be true), suspend judgment, if it is practical to do so, until you get more information one way or another.  Learn to tolerate currently unresolvable ambiguity.  Often we must act without knowing the full truth or facts, but you act and still know that you are not certain of the truth or the facts, and keeping this in mind will make it easier for you to adjust course as needed.