How Can We Be Sure Of What We Know?

Epistemology is the study of how we know things. The field apparently started going out to left field after Descartes, when people started wanting proof for sense perception….I had a lady once who said to me, “prove to me that wall exists.” It gets to be rather elusive when we try to prove that the image in my mind is truly representative of the actual object outside of my mind.  How can I be sure that my senses are not lying to me? One of Descartes examples was a man with a missing limb who still felt the limb, even though it clearly wasn’t there. How then can we prove logically that our limbs are not missing, yet we believe they’re there? When you put a stick in a glass of water, it looks crooked. How can you prove logically that when the stick is pulled out of the glass, that it is straight? How do you know and prove that your eyes are not lying to you?

The modern study of epistemology seems to be mired in an endless series of examples and counter-examples that are searching for sure knowledge, which seems to be rather elusive. Some give up and end in skepticism, but radical skepticism is saying “I know that I can’t know” and is therefore self-refuting and nonsensical. So what is the answer?

The answer is that we don’t start with “how we know” but with “how things exist.” The formal study of existence is metaphysics. Thomas Aquinas started with “being” as a participle, as in running, jumping, sleeping, and being. The act of being is analogous, in the sense that the object in the mind is the same object as in the physical world, just with a different act of being. The same idea can be in my mind and your mind……it is not two ideas.  Likewise, a chair can exist in the physical world and the exact same chair can exist in your mind at the same time, but just a different mode of existence. So the object in my mind is not a copy, but the same object that is also outside of my mind.

As weird as this may sound at first glance, it solves the even weirder problem that is at the root of modern epistemology. The epistemological problem starts with assuming that I have a copy of the chair in my mind, and the real chair supposedly exists in the physical world. In Thomism, this question of “how to know if the copy in my mind is accurate?” is a bogus question, for it is not a copy in your mind, but it is the same, actual chair.  It just has a different mode of existence.

Those mired in modern epistemology will ask “how can you know that your sense perceptions accurately represent the chair to your mind?” The answer is that the sense perceptions do not represent a chair to my mind. My sense percepttions send color and shape to my mind, and my mind makes a judgement “this is a chair.” The color and shape are accurate, and can be double checked with our other senses to make sure they’re accurate. That the images represent a chair is an act of judgement, not an act of sense perception. In this sense, all attempts to prove sense perceptions unreliable are self-refuting, and therefore I can trust my sense perceptions. I cannot always trust my judgement, but I can use my mental faculties to cross-check my judgments, and therefore improve their accuracy to the point of confidence.

Why does any of this matter? Because we have people running around the countryside saying that we can’t know things for sure, especially religious truths. We must be able to answer them and show that we can indeed know things for sure, we can trust our minds.

For more details of this, see “Objectivity in Biblical Interpretation” by Thomas Howe. It deals not just with biblical interpretation, but with objectivity in meaning, and demonstrates the Thomistic solution to the modern epistemological quandry.

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About humblesmith

Christian Apologist & Philosopher
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