How do we know?


We spend much of our waking days, wandering around in the world, interacting with both people and objects. These interactions formulate many different situations or scenarios. Every new experience we have comes pre-loaded with the vast potential of learning. With that being said, depending on what information is coming at us, and metaphorically which pair of glasses we are wearing (our set of mental constructs for interpretation of the world) will primarily drive what it is that we take away from a given situation.

Why do we learn we might ask? Learning helps us to solve problems. When we are solving problems that are at the edge of the realm of what is known, this can be called creativity. At the edge of what we know is chaos, while on the other hand, what we know is order. So, by standing at the edge of order and solving problems we are integrating information that is (disorganized) chaotic into something orderly and now known where it was not known in its previous state of chaos.

Now we have a polarized situation where we have chaos (the unknown) and order (what is known). However, we rarely stop to think, how is it that we know what we know? How do we transform this chaos (series of problems) into order (set of solutions)? It is even rarer that we stop to ask, how is it that I formulate my views on the world to support what it is that I know or value? However, this is paramount because how we view and interpret the world will affect how it is that we learn, or refuse to learn. This notion has to to with our formulation of truth and value.

In the end, the aim of this article is to suggest that we may not “know” as much as we think and or would like to. This can be an eye opening realization if our viewpoint is of a definite, determined or well defined reality.


If we use a metaphor to understand our quest for knowledge, perhaps the notion of a house is a stable construct. To begin building a house, one must start with a foundation. In our journey of “knowing,” we cannot spend too long pondering before the notion of “truth” steps into the frame. This concept is one of the broadest terms in philosophy, with it being heavily debated and in the end very complicated.

“The problem of truth is, in a way easy to state: what truths are, and what (if anything) makes them true. But this simple statement masks a great deal of controversy.” [1]

Depending on how we view the world, our formulation of truth might be simple (black and white) or more complex (contextual). When we look at the world and come to “know” absolute “truths,” sometimes we become confused and see them as “Truth.” This idea is much different because a capital “T” truth implies that is the way it is. It suggests that under no circumstances will that change. This approach makes truths simple. Unfortunately, we do not live in a world that has capital “T” truths. Instead, life is much, which provides an exciting richness and depth to our everyday experience. Here it might be useful to ask, how is it that we formulate our version of “truth”?


We can look at the next stage of the house here. If truth is the foundation, then the house is constructed out of “knowledge and justified belief.” For now, to understand this notion to a minimal degree, we can bring to light Epistemology.

“Defined narrowly, epistemology is the study of knowledge and justified belief. [...] Understood more broadly, epistemology is about issues having to do with the creation and dissemination of knowledge in particular areas of inquiry.” [2]

How we go about gathering this information (the tools that we use) have several layers of complexity. If we look at our most common mechanism for understanding what is in the world, we will see science. We can leverage the scientific method, through our sense perceptions in combination with analytical techniques to better understand our surroundings. We also utilize our primary communication tool, language to be able to convey our findings.

There are at least two key aspects to note here. The first is the limitations and degree to which we rely on our senses for a valid interpretation of our world. The second is the inherently limited nature of language to be able to explain our rich inner landscapes.

Now, we have laid out many facets that philosophers and psychologists have been investigating and discussing for centuries. Therefore, it is not the goal of this essay to illustrate what truth, knowledge, or knowing is. Instead, the aim here is to demonstrate some of the pitfalls that can be had from the current paradigm within which we are living.

Tools for Knowing

To begin, let us consider, “How do we know?” Perhaps we can comprehend that we generally come to know things through our senses, then understanding, and finally we apply reason. Here, a fundamental question comes to mind, which cannot be stated better:

“The fundamental question of reason is its relationship to reality. Is reason capable of knowing reality—or is it not? Is our rational faculty a cognitive function, taking its material from reality, understanding the significance of that material, and using that understanding to guide our actions in reality—or is it not?” Pg. 28 [1]

From this idea of reason, perhaps we can agree (or at least entertain the notion) that our sense organs straddle the gap between reason and reality:

“... a recognition of the uncontroversial fact that our sense organs have an identity, that they work in specific ways, and that the form in which we experience reality is a function of our sense organs’ identities. And they have in common the crucial and controversial premise that our sense organs’ having an identity means that they become obstacles to direct consciousness of reality.” Pg. 31 [1]

If we experience reality through these limiting senses, perhaps we can contemplate the notion, that instead of going around and saying what is, it is more productive to look around and understand what things are not. In this light, empiricism (as defined by Google) - “the theory that all knowledge is derived from sense-experience” - enters the scene. This idea suggests that inductive reasoning is a robust approach (or at least the best one we have) to view reality. It seems that humans, with our limited sense perceptions, need to keep going around and metaphorically striking things until something breaks (one such hammer is the scientific method). Then we accordingly reformulate our view of the world based on that thing (idea, theory) breaking, or not.

Perhaps science can be viewed as a tool (hammer) for interpreting and testing reality. At the end of the day, if we could stick to that stringently, then maybe we would understand the world much better. However, it seems that our psychology does not always strictly afford us this faculty. Many of us tend toward believing things people tell us that seem “reasonable.” This idea is to say, if our interpretation as compared to what we know about science, understanding, body language, and experience is not unexpected - in other words, rules for our model of reality are not violated - we tend toward accepting what we experience (hear, see, smell, etc.). Perhaps this is the crack in the wall where yet another, very different viewpoint of knowing as opposed to science can seep into the discussion.

If we do not continuously test our surroundings and derive our view from our senses and verifiable sources, then we err on the side of faith. Keith Stanovich in “How to Think Straight About Psychology,” describes the difference between science and faith. We can think of science as an approach to working with the world (subject matter) that allows for a falsifiable examination. On the other hand, faith can be viewed as a belief in something while lacking the falsifiable portion. This concept, of course, is a critical aspect of our lives as many people (myself included - especially in my early years) take much of what they see and hear at face value (based on faith).

Faith is often ascribed to the transcendental and or metaphysical aspects of reality due to their lack of being falsifiable. We can question: do these sort of experiences exist, to what extent and then of course, what are they? Due to their lack of testability, this idea can leave a gaping door through which “not-knowing” can walk. The critical notion here is to retain a structured way of viewing the world so that we do not leap to conclusions that are at best unsound.

We must take great care as to not dismiss anecdotal and faith-based evidence and or experiences on the one hand but also not allow them to solidify to the more profound and more expansive realm (universal truths) as knowledge derived from a falsifiable approach. Dr. Ross Flynn [4] makes an excellent point that perhaps “philosophy and the social sciences often find falsifiability harder to measure. Hence, hard vs. soft science.”

The forum

There are many ways to share information today. For this reason, we should be more careful now than ever. Anyone can create a website and begin to spew information. Dialogue is an essential tool that we are not currently fully leveraging (at a societal level). Discourse establishes an arena where our ideas can be challenged.

Writing can be viewed as a way to express thoughts in the hopes that they will be tested. This process can be utilized as a sort of sharpening of the sword, or a method for striking things with a hammer, waiting for them to break. One such tool for testing what it is that we know is science.

Science can be seen as an arena for ideas to be vetted and criticized. Science creates a theory and not a law or a fact. This notion goes back to the earlier statement; everything is on the table as far as disproof, including long-standing scientific theories. Another thing that is most likely of paramount importance here is as Jordan Peterson states - “science can tell us what is, but not what should be,” or in other words what is moral. Maybe this is an additional attribute of dialogue and creativity that spawns out of the consciousness that we as humans possess. This postulate should at least spur the thought of understanding our audience. Creativity has its time and place, and there is also one for academic style (falsifiable) inquiry.

Rigorous research culminates in a dialogue of sorts, an academic paper. From here, we can leverage sources as a tie back to the original spring of knowledge (direct observation through experimentation). In this manner, if harnessed correctly, we can stand on the shoulders of giants (The Great Conversation). Now for each of these different communication forums, there is a spectrum of how people use citations. Should we utilize many or few references? There are well known academic authors, Carl Jung for example, who have written entire books with a handful of citations at best. So then, what is the correct balance? How does this change concerning the particular forum (blog, novel, essay, academic journal article, etc.)?

Several things come to mind when thinking of citations and research. The first is interpretation and misquotation. In the strictest, most romantic sense, the academic (peer review) process is an elegant and robust system. However, there are two potential flaws in the peer review process.

The first has to do with interpretation. Because academic papers are stand-alone pieces, and the author is not there to explain, we will never get an entirely accurate representation of what they were trying to convey (even if they did describe until they were blue in the face, we might not wholly or accurately understand). This concept is one of the purposes of the peer review process. This approach is to say, scrutinizing the accuracy and validity of statements by other peers. It should be noted that a peer is someone with a similar level of understanding (complexity of knowing) on a subject. Proper implementation of the peer review process is one way to ensure that the dialogue that has been created through the centuries can live on and continue to grow healthily and productively.

The second potential flaw in the peer review process and perhaps the most worrisome facet is regarding funding. This approach creates a fundamental conflict of interest when the party doing research is getting funding from an organization that will benefit from certain specific outcomes. Take, for example, the pharmaceutical industry. If an institution is researching a drug, it will help the funding company to have positive results come from the drug trials. If there are positive results, the organization knows that there will be more money coming. This structure also creates non-collaborative competition between research organizations (universities). So instead of helping each other collaboratively to further science, it becomes a competition culminating in a funding grab.

Another facet about citations is complete falsity of documentation to placate or win others over. There was a group of authors who recently submitted several papers to academic journals that were accepted and published, only to be later found out to be entirely fake. Their point was to illustrate the bias that specific journals have. The ironic part is that one of the documents won an award and another got a comment about how good it was. This illustration was called the “Grievance Studies Affair.” With particular subject matter aside, perhaps this supports the argument about being more careful than ever with the increasing firehose of information as much of it is poor quality at best. On the other hand, where do we draw the line?

There are great thinkers such as Sam Harris’s who have an at least vaguely tyrannical approach to truth. At the same time, it would be troublesome to lead a life where we can make small leaps in logic and as a result, justify any and every action.

It seems as though we need to understand the forum in which we are trying to converse. If we are an author trying to tell a story, we should do everything in our power to walk the line of truth. However, if the goal is to build upon existing and or create new knowledge, perhaps we should be deploying a system that is similar to the academic approach. Part of this process is to check and critique the work of peers. The aim here is as Dr. Flynn [4] puts it is “to reduce or eliminate bias, misrepresentation, and fraud.” However, as we must keep in mind that with any social system or institution, it is still an organization of inherently fallible people. So then, it becomes a question of where, if anywhere, do we draw the line between art, literature, and academia (psychology and philosophy in particular)?

It might behoove us to examine how it is that new knowledge is created. We create new ways of knowing through a very complex, hierarchical process. To illustrate, here is a compelling graphic from Jordan Peterson’s “Map’s of Meaning” on how he postulates that we create new knowledge:

Knowledge Creation.JPG

From this figure, perhaps we can interpret that creative behavior, which is more or less what the writing herein is (or at least attempted to be), as the most fundamental (foundational) aspect for the creation of new knowledge. From there it flows upward through imitation, play, ritual, etc. Now this approach to creativity - if we consider writing to be the original form - does have some feedback because literature is quite far up on this list.

Maybe religion, literature, philosophy, rationality, and empiricism are tools for getting to the edge of our currently explored strata. From there we can launch into unexplored territory. Perhaps, we can utilize some knowledge as a stepping stone, while keeping our other foot in the chaos of creative potential.

We must take care here to realize, with honesty where we are. Maybe we should consider that we are not where we think that we are, or in other words that we are not as intellectually mature as we often would like to believe ourselves as being. Perhaps we are not at the edge of what is known. If this is the case, then our endeavors are inherently not creative. Jordan Peterson puts it eloquently: We need to know four things 1) Where we are, 2) Where we want to go, 3) How to get from where we are to where we want to go, and 3) What that means. It is my conclusion that FULLY grasping and accepting where we are is arduous and painful at best. At worst, there are parts of where we are now that we at least, for the time being, are blind to (pre-conscious).


In the end, what is being said with so many words? On the one hand, there is an argument for science, reason, rationality (to some degree) and empiricism. We need (these?) tools. However, we should place a great deal value on artistic creation and expression. This crux is the origin of all new knowledge. Perhaps there can be some line traversed between chaos and order (the line on the yin/yang symbol between the black and white as Jordan Peterson notes). At the same time, we should strive not to have our arguments untethered from reality. Additionally, we should take care not to become so constricted that we cannot get into the artistic flow. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi talks about this feeling in his book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience:

“The optimal state of inner experience is one in which there is order in consciousness. This happens when psychic energy—or attention—is invested in realistic goals, and when skills match the opportunities for action. The pursuit of a goal brings order in awareness because a person must concentrate attention on the task at hand and momentarily forget everything else.”

Now, this flow is indeed not scientific supporting evidence for (the correctness of) arguments, but there is something that my mind rationalizes around what is created when I am in that state. It feels real and genuine. Perhaps, this is me skating very close to or taking a logical leap - knowing something that I don’t, creating non-sequiturs, or worse yet, perpetuating false or unsubstantiated arguments. However, this flow, this alignment of energy - in my best estimation - is something to be recognized and not taken lightly.

What it seemingly comes down to is understanding our audience and the source of our information. Following these two will help us to construct the proper arguments and evidence to convey our points. We should look toward history so that we can attempt not to repeat past failures. This point is where the “Great Conversation” comes into play. We can leverage the knowledge of our predecessors, which leverage the expertise of their predecessors. It can be thought of as a concentration of knowledge. If we combine this with a willingness to shift from a place of “knowing” to a place of curiosity, then our lives with change dramatically. If we carry around questions which are unanswerable and eternal, we will be willing to change the answers to these as we gather new evidence and knowledge.

It might behoove us to do all of this while keeping in mind that the present is inherently different from the past, but history does have universal lessons to provide. There is continuously the challenge of ensuring that language is utilized and conveyed correctly. Understanding that how we interpret, appreciate, and value things in the world is at least somewhat contextual will perhaps aid us in creating meaningful dialogue. This concept is also likely to allow us to be more open and understanding of others when they are conveying ideas that do not agree with our views. This idea is because we can understand that whatever point they are trying to make, it is far more complex and intricate than they can convey through mere language. How we know is an incredibly involved process. Perhaps focusing on questions will make us realize that the answers are all merely interpretations and opinions in the end. Maybe where we need to land is at a location where all well thought out views should be included in the conversation.


[1]    M. Glanzberg, “Truth,” Jun. 2006.

[2]    M. Steup, “Epistemology,” Dec. 2005.

[3]    S. R. C. Hicks, Explaining Postmodernism: Skepticism and Socialism from Rousseau to Foucault. Scholargy Publishing, Inc., 2004.

[4]    “Rochester Family Therapy Clinic - Ross Flynn, Ph.D. - Marriage & Family Counseling for the Greater Rochester, MI Area.” [Online]. Available: [Accessed: 14-Apr-2019].