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How Do We Know Anything?

April 11, 2022 | by Dr. Jeremy England

Everything we experience in life is filtered through our own minds. How do we truly know if anything exists beyond ourselves?

Before asking the question of whether we should believe in an all-powerful creator, it is worth asking why we believe anything else that we believe.

If starting from a position of radical skepticism (calling into question whether certainty is possible at all), it is worth asking why we think there are other persons in the universe at all.

An individual experiences his own senses, thoughts, and emotions. To navigate those experiences in ways that make the world seem predictable, we learn to slice experience into different pieces, about which we make different predictive assumptions. We treat a tree one way and a river another, and the ways we treat them encode a lot of predictive power. I know that trees are rooted in the ground and rivers freeze when it’s very cold.

To navigate those experiences in ways that make the world seem predictable, we learn to slice experience into different pieces, about which we make different predictive assumptions.

What about people? From infancy, we are trained to interact with the human-seeming parts of experience as though the best theory of them is that their behaviors are the result of an emotional, intellectual, and psychophysical process like our own. We come to understand the behavior of others as the result of thoughts and conversations they have.

However, no matter how successful an individual is at predicting her experience by assuming there are other individuals like her, she can never prove to herself that others exist. In practice, we are so socialized into assuming other individuals exist that we rarely think about this. But the idea of other people with freely-willed actions guided by their own thoughts and emotions is arguably just a useful predictive model that helps an individual make sense of the data of her experience. You see another person, and they seem very angry; you predict that they are likely to shout and throw things. You see they love their child and you predict they will help and protect that child.

Unsplash.com, Alex Motoc

Turning back to the subject of an all-powerful creator of the universe, from this perspective we can see that His existence is neither a fact to prove nor disprove. Instead, consider that the same faculty we possess for understanding people as freely-willing individuals could be applied not only to the people-shaped parts of our world, but also to all of experience combined. It is always an option to choose to take the entirety of the world we perceive and assume that it was deliberately chosen to express the coherent intentions of a personality.

Whether or not this assumption works well as a predictive model for the world as a whole is, in principle, an empirical question. In the same way we can befriend another person and eventually understand how to predict how he would act or what he would want us to do in a given situation, perhaps we can also achieve the same kind of understanding with the creator of the universe. Treating the entirety of what we experience this way has us understand the universe as an intricate set of messages. Does it work to regard our thoughts and actions, on the one hand, and our resulting experiences in the world, on the other, as two sides to a dialogue?

It is always an option to choose to take the entirety of the world we perceive and assume that it was deliberately chosen to express the coherent intentions of a personality.

We may disagree about how successful this approach to modeling experience can be. Still, the nature of the disagreement is much different from when it sounded like a disagreement about a fact of existence. Rather than debates about metaphysics, it starts to be more about the experience of an individual and whether such a modeling approach works or not. It must be granted that the task sounds fiendishly difficult. The universe is so manifestly complex that trying to decode a message from it by sheer contemplation could only lead to confusion or insanity.

Thankfully, this is where the Hebrew Bible steps in. From this vantage, we can see that the Bible intends not to be a list of theses to be accepted regardless of the facts. Rather, the text claims to provide the reader with a head start towards understanding what the creator of the world wants from her or from humanity in general. The Torah contains specific claims with definite content that is not so easy to derive from first principles. God does not want human beings to murder each other and does want a particular nation descended from Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob to build a temple in Jerusalem and abstain from eating frogs.

These are real details that could be empirically right or wrong, meaning they could prove to be very useful or very misleading advice for how to predict and make sense of events in the created world. In this light, whether Jew or gentile, we are not commanded to believe something implausible without evidence (as biblical religion is often caricatured). We are invited to get to know God through the world He has made, guided by texts that help us begin to understand what it is that God wants from us and how He promises to express his judgments in that world. How true this guidance turns out to be is best judged by someone who studies it with an open heart and sets his path accordingly, learning more with each step he takes about how to listen closely for the still, quiet voice of transcendent meaning.

Featured Image: Unsplash.com, Marc-Olivier Jodoin



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