How Do I Know?

How Do I Know?
Easter 15

We have established that, while philosophy may have many definitions, it primarily is the study of knowledge, the science of obtaining wisdom. If you are a reader of this blog, you then “know” that it is not a personal journal but a series of articles regarding philosophy, psychology, theology, spirituality, and basic living principles and how we put these into action in our lives, wherever those lives may be lived.

Yesterday we discussed reflection. After all, what we learn has to be taken in, digested, and then reflected upon for it to have meaning or, perhaps, to be rejected. I mentioned I was going to an event that what termed a “reflection” event, using dreams as the avenue for reflection. I also subtly indicated that I was not overly enthusiastic about the topic or its application. Those feelings and expectations or lack thereof bring up an interesting question: How do we know what it is we think we know?

Rene Descartes is often quoted. His “I think, therefore I am” is used both for and against a great many arguments. I found it an undercurrent in the discussion I heard yesterday regarding dreams. Descartes is considered the father of modern philosophy. He considered knowledge not to simply be learned information and he often compared it to what we do not know. Knowledge to Descartes was certain knowledge or “scientia” and lesser grades of conviction or” persuasio”. He explained: “I distinguish the two as follows: there is conviction when there remains some reason which might lead us to doubt, but knowledge is conviction based on a reason so strong that it can never be shaken by any stronger reason.”

Many portray Descartes’ definition of knowledge as being based upon doubt. He himself felt knowledge needed to withstand tests of being absolute truth and so it should withstand any doubts. “First of all, as soon as we think that we correctly perceive something, we are spontaneously convinced that it is true. Now if this conviction is so firm that it is impossible for us ever to have any reason for doubting what we are convinced of, then there are no further questions for us to ask: we have everything that we could reasonably want. … For the supposition which we are making here is of a conviction so firm that it is quite incapable of being destroyed; and such a conviction is clearly the same as the most perfect certainty.” Simply put, Descartes felt knowledge was or should be incapable of being destroyed.

How do we know what we know? Descartes felt relying on sensory information only could prove false. He used dreams as an example. He used this as an example. “How often, asleep at night, am I convinced of just such familiar events—that I am here in my dressing-gown, sitting by the fire—when in fact I am lying undressed in bed! … As I think about this more carefully, I see plainly that there are never any sure signs by means of which being awake can be distinguished from being asleep. The result is that I begin to feel dazed, and this very feeling only reinforces the notion that I may be asleep.”

What we learn from our senses is not entirely objective. I often am sitting in a room and feeling cold when my spouse is not cold at all, maybe even feeling a bit warm. Descartes called this his Argument from Error, the thinking that knowledge based upon perception could be flawed or false. The experience of awaking from a dream in which one is running and is actually feeling winded was to Descartes proof that beliefs based upon perception might be the basis of dreams and therefore false.

He did, however, see limits to his own argument regarding dreams. “Suppose then that I am dreaming, and that these particulars—that my eyes are open, that I am moving my head and stretching out my hands—are not true. Perhaps, indeed, I do not even have such hands or such a body at all. Nonetheless, it must surely be admitted that the visions which come in sleep are like paintings, which must have been fashioned in the likeness of things that are real, and, hence, that at least these general kinds of things—eyes, head, hands and the body as a whole—are things which are not imaginary but are real and exist.”

There are those who do indeed feel that dreams can mislead, convince us that what we do or observe is not reality. This, some claim, is proof that dreams can mislead. My experience yesterday in reflecting used dreams as the primary tool. Conducted by a learned and licensed minister and a trained dream group leader who are founders of a nonprofit organization called The Metagem Institute, it employed techniques for dream reflections used by the Hagen Institute.

The event began with a quote from an Anglican bishop, Bishop Appleton: “Give me a candle of the spirit, O God, as I go down into the deep of my inner being.” For me, that quote and the successive hours led me to a new definition of learning, of gained knowledge – whether through my senses or by scientific principles.

My new definition of knowledge is this: going deep into life, exploring our inner living. Some believe in precognition dreams while others see dreams as a replay of their life. Depending on which school of psychology you believe and…spoiler alert… we will discuss all of the various ones during our next series, you might see dreams as a way of interpreting our consciousness as well as our subconsciousness.

In the end we need to integrate reason with sensory perceptions. Just because my spouse is bundled up nicely and not cold does not mean it may not be cold. Said spouse might have a slight fever or might just need to take off a scarf or sweater. We once stopped while on a trip to fuel the car. This very same spouse got out wearing only a light t-shirt and jeans. That attire belied the fact that it was snowing heavily. As the locals sitting outside the gas station remarked: “That gringo is loco!” (I agreed, shivering inside the car wearing both shirt and sweater!)

It is not wrong to check and make sure that what we THINK we know is actually true. The acquiring of knowledge is not easy and often can be misconstrued, misrepresented, and misinterpreted. What we feel is important but we cannot act upon feelings alone. Neither can life be simply a series of science experiments. There are basic truths we must recognize. Descartes said it best: “Whether I am awake or asleep, two and three added together are five, and a square has no more than four sides.”


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