I hosted a conversation yesterday about knowledge and epistemology. I opened the convo with this presentation, covering: (i) the justified-true-belief view of knowledge, (ii) Popper’s/Deutsch’s alternative framing of knowledge, and (iii) defining a few words like skepticism, rationalism, empiricism, and relativism.

Consciousness and knowing

One of the first things that came up was a question about consciousness and whether conscious truths are the only truths we can be “sure” about.

I think a better understanding of what consciousness actually is could help elucidate the relationship between consciousness, knowledge, and reality, but here are some of my current thoughts:

  • We all experience a field of conscious contents in each moment (sound, sight, internal body sensation, and so on). These contents are directly present in our consciousness.
  • We all have some knowledge of this field of contents: the knowledge takes the form of thoughts, concepts, internal monologue, things we write down about what’s in the mind, the words we use to describe this experience to others, and so on.

We should distinguish between the conscious experiences (which are directly available, are “undeniable” in some sense) and knowledge about the conscious experiences (which should take the form of information). The knowledge we create about our internal conscious world is fallible and imperfect, just like how our knowledge of the external world is fallible and imperfect.

How can you be mistaken about knowledge of your own mental experience? We addressed this partly in the conversation: if you say “I feel calm right now”, that certainly corresponds somewhat to your direct conscious experience. But it relies on a web of assumptions and concepts (“I”, “feel”, “calm”, “now”), any of which could be partly mistaken. (If you subscribe to the Buddhist doctrine of no-self, you would say that no such “I” actually exists!)

This isn’t to say that you have no idea what’s going on in your brain. There’s a set of conscious experiences which are right there, which “you” are feeling directly. But your knowledge of all this (which, again, is different from the direct mental stimuli) is imperfect.

One other way to frame this is: you have the direct conscious experiences, and you have the words to describe those conscious experiences.1 The experiences are there on their own and they’re beautiful and they’re worthy of investigation independent of any verbal thought. (Meditate!) But words can be nice too, they’re one of the best ways we can communicate these experiences! And words are fallible.

(Caveat: I’m not claiming that knowledge only takes the form of words—it can take other forms too, but a lot of our current knowledge is formulated in words.)

On doubting everything

Many people had the sentiment that it’s counterproductive to constantly put everything into doubt, which I agree with.

I’ve said this before and I’ll repeat it here: you don’t need to question everything at once, but every specific thing you know should be questioned at one point or another.

We go about our life with a giant web of assumptions and beliefs and concepts about what everything is and what is going on. A lot of these ideas are subconscious and some of them are conscious. We don’t have the time to constantly question all of them, and we don’t need to.

We can question one thing at a time, while holding other things in place. Right now the problem I’m trying to solve is: finishing this blog post. I’m trying to answer questions like what do I think about “doubt”? how can I communicate these ideas as clearly and concisely as possible? when should I stop and get back to work? but I’m not questioning what matter is or whether my bed really exists.

Here’s the great thing about reality: this kind of “focus on one thing at a time” is freaking possible! I am truly grateful for that—there’s some kind of structure here, some kind of uniformity, that allows us to solve one problem, answer one question, resolve one mistaken assumption at a time, without breaking everything else in the process. (This is also specific to my circumstances: I have the resources, health, and safety to be able to focus on one thing at a time without everything else falling apart.)

Why do I assert that every assumption should come into doubt at one point or another (while holding the other assumptions in place)? Because it’s only by doubting some of our most closely held beliefs2 that we’ve made some of the biggest breakthroughs in our civilization—both in our knowledge and our power to shape the world via technology.

That said, the entire load of questioning fundamental beliefs doesn’t need to fall on you specifically! We’re all in this together, and each of us is working on a slightly different set of problems. Not everyone should be a philosopher (or physicist, or chemist, or mathematician…). And no one should focus on a single problem all the time.

So how do you decide what to do? What questions should you ask?

David Deutsch literally formalizes this with his “fun criterion” for problem-solving. What problems, questions, areas of knowledge should you focus on, you ask? Whatever is most fun! When something feels fun, that’s your conscious and subconscious mind working together to direct you towards what is best for you in the present moment. Follow the fun!

If you find it unpleasurable to question the origin of the universe, you can explore other questions like how do proteins fold, or how to reduce wealth inequality, or how do you make a delicious chocolate chip cookie, or why do people inflict pain on each other, or how do you build a great software company.

And importantly, as I said in my presentation: the first step in knowledge-creation is conjecture. Don’t just keep questioning and doubting, come up with some answers! They might be wrong (if you’re a fallibilist, they’re definitely wrong), but that’s what the second step of criticism is for! Come up with some idea, some product, some explanation for how your problem can be solved3, and then improve it.

The worst thing you can do is question everything at the same time, coming up with no answers and making zero progress on anything.

The emotions of learning

One thing this conversation reminded me about is that in addition to philosophizing about knowledge (and actually obtaining knowledge lol), it’s helpful to be self-aware about what your psychological motivations are in the quest to learn and to know. This is something I’ve always been unsure about. On one hand I know that I genuinely feel a heart-expanding, spiritually-awakening thrill when I learn something new—especially something that brings together many ideas I’ve been stewing on for a while.

On the other hand I’m sure at least part of my interest in knowledge is an interest in control, or certainty, or status, or safety, or power. I am a human so I have human desires. I’m not always in touch with all of those desires. (Meditate!) But anyway the point of all this is primarily to enjoy it.

I enjoyed learning things before I had fleshed out philosophical stances on what knowledge-creation is, and I even enjoyed it when I believed knowledge was meaningless and impossible. We’re all humans, and we all want to enjoy ourselves and feel loved and important. Each person finds this in a way that’s particular to them.

  1. The distinction I make between conscious experiences and knowledge of conscious experiences could be totally flawed: I just came up with it this morning lol. ↩︎

  2. Examples of historically closely-held beliefs: that the sun revolves around the earth, that humans were designed by an intelligent creator rather than by evolution, that time flows uniformly and space does not bend. ↩︎

  3. Throughout this post you may have noticed I conflate “problem-solving” with “questioning” with “knowledge-creation”, and that’s deliberate – they’re all fundamentally the same thing.

    A problem can be defined as a situation in which there are conflicting explanations. It could be a conflict between an expectation (based on an explanation) and an interpretation of experience (based, again, on an explanation); it could be a conflict between a theory and our intuitive expectations (which are also a theory); it could be a conflict between the way things are and the way they should be (according to our current ideas of how they should be). ↩︎