The Problem of Knowledge

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We live in a strange and perplexing world. Despite the explosive growth of knowledge in recent decades, we are confronted by a bewildering array of contradictory beliefs. We are told that astronomers have made great progress in understanding the universe in which we live, yet many people still belief in astrology. Scientists claim that the dinosaurs died out 65 million years ago, yet some insist that dinosaurs and human beings lived simultaneously. Apollo 11 landed on the moon in 1969, but it is rumoured in some quarters that the landings were faked by NASA. A work of art is hailed as a masterpiece by some critics and dismissed as junk by others. Millions of people believe in God yet atheists insist that 'God is dead.' Faced with such a confusion of different opinions, how are we to make sense of things and develop a coherent picture of reality?

Given one's school education, one might think of knowledge as a relatively unproblematic commodity consisting of various facts found in textbooks that have been proved to be true. But things are not as simple as that. After all, if one has attended a school one hundred or even five hundred years ago, one would have learnt a different set of 'truths.' This suggests that knowledge is not static, but has a history and changes over time. Yesterday's revolution in thought becomes today's common sense, and today's common sense may go on to become tomorrows' superstition. So what guarantee is there that our current understanding of things is correct? Despite the intellectual progress of the last five hundred years, future generations may look back on our much-vaunted achievements and dismiss our science as crude, our arts as naive, and our ethics as barbaric.

When one considers themselves from the perspective of the vast reaches of time and space, further doubts arise. According to cosmologists, the universe has been in existence for about 15 billion (15,000,000,000) years. If one imagines that huge amount of time compressed into one year running from January to December, then the earliest human beings do not appear on the scene until around 10:30 p.m. on the 31st of December, fire was only domesticated at 11:46 p.m., and the whole recorded history occupies only the last ten seconds of the cosmic year. Since we have been trying to make sense of the world in a systematic way for only a minute fraction of time, there is no guarantee that we have got it right. Furthermore, it turns out that in cosmic terms we are also pretty small. According to astronomers, there are ten times more starts int he night sky than grains of sand in all the world's deserts and beaches. Yet we flatter ourselves that we have discovered t he laws that apply to all times and all places. Since we are familiar with only a minute fraction of the universe, this seems like a huge leap of faith. Perhaps it will turn out that some of the deeper truths in life, the universe, and everything are simply beyond human comprehension.

Common sense[edit]