Epistemology

 “As for me, all I know is that I know nothing.”[i]
 Socrates (470-399 BCE)

How do we know what we know?  Epistemology is the branch of philosophy that investigates this question.[ii]  How do we know what is real?  How do we know that the reality we perceive isn’t just a constant dream from which we never wake?  How do we come to create knowledge?  How do we use our brains to interpret the world?  How do we distinguish illusion from reality?

My kids like frozen yoghurt.  This afternoon my two year-old announced that he had a hot knee and therefore he needed to eat frozen yoghurt.  I was concerned about his knee, so I said to him, “Let’s take off your shoes, and you can lie down on the couch.”  “No!” he asserts, “my knee is hot”.  In the end I find that his knee is just fine.  For some reason he has developed an association between having a hot knee and getting to eat frozen yogurt.

He has also developed another phrase “I’m tired now, I must watch TV”.  I honestly have no idea where he has picked up this phrase.  Although thinking about it, I have my suspicions.  Many kids of this age, roughly between two and seven years old, come up with these seemingly disjointed stories.

At this age children are in a liminal phase of working out how events connect.  How does one event cause another?  They begin to establish the causal relationship between events as they perceive them occurring through time.  There seems to be a pattern of events causing new events as time moves forward.

I know if I cut myself with a knife, I will experience pain.  This is sufficient evidence for me to avoid repeating the experience.  I develop my reasoning using subjective experience in order to contribute to my well-being, and avoid harm.  This process provides only a limited view of reality.

Our sensory experience is the primary way in which we develop knowledge, belief and justification.  We have sensory experience, we construct a hypothesis, the hypothesis is tested and we are better able to discriminate between what is false and what is true.  This type of learning is empirical and subjective.  Initially in life we learn through our subjective experience.

As we gain the capacity for communication we develop our capacity to learn through the experiences of others.  Our secondary external sources allow us to greatly expand our knowledge.  We can gain both conformation and contradiction from external sources.  When we base our knowledge on empirical experience, experiment and observation we are better able to know what is false about reality, and we are also one step closer to knowing what is true about reality.

Epistemology, how we know what we know, is a perennial point of argument for philosophers.  Socrates’ states that ‘all he knows is that he knows nothing’.  This is a humorous reminder, because if Socrates knows nothing, how can he know that he knows nothing?  We are all caught in our own perception.  With our perception we do the best we can to perceive reality through a constant potential for illusion.


[i] Thinkexist.com: Socrates’ quotes (online), available: http://thinkexist.com/quotation/as_for_me-all_i_know_is_that_i_know_nothing/12036.html, 2012.

[ii] Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy: Epistemology (online), available: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/epistemology/, 2005.