Why you know less than you think

Why you know less than you think

Everything I know is learned. It’s an important thing to remember – it’s easy to forget and believe that everything you know is true in some fundamental and foundational way. Everything you know is learned too.

Let’s unpack that.

What do you know to be true? I know that I am writing this at the moment. Well, I think I am. Some dreams are pretty vivid, and hallucinations can be so vivid that people genuinely don’t know what’s going on. This can be over-hyped by a Hollywood that benefits from depictions of vivid hallucinations, so I don’t want to overplay that. I had a fever as a child where I saw an approaching tsunami and could do nothing to move out of its way. Even though my bed was against the wall, I knew the wave was coming from a place through my bedroom wall, but not literally from the next room. My mind could cope with the dual realities that there was a wall, and also that a tsunami was slowly approaching from that direction that I could see, in a three-dimensional sense.

So if I can hallucinate a plausible (or implausible, but believed) reality, how do I know I’m not doing that now? Perhaps I am, but if I am, there really isn’t much I can do about that. As Descartes said “I think therefore I am” – all I can really know is that my mind exists.

If we accept that the reality that I experience with my mind is the only one worth concerning myself with, then there are some other things I can say:

  • I’ve never experienced anything that cannot be explained by science.
  • There are some things that science does not have a thorough explanation for yet but there’s nothing that’s been discovered that appears to be beyond the remit of science.
  • Science can explain everything on the basis of mathematics. Mathematics, in other words, appears to be the way the universe works.

This last bullet needs some unpacking in itself.

Science as explainer

If you look at something – perhaps a tree outside your window, your brain is receiving electrical signals from the nerves attached to your eyes. Your eyes received photons of light that triggered the back of your eyeball with different wavelengths of light. If the light that hit the tree was largely white (it included light of multiple wavelengths), the light that was absorbed by the leaves was subtracted from that light, resulting in only the photons with frequencies in the middle of the visible spectrum being reflected back (green).

All of the movements of light and the structures (the eye, the nerves, the brain, the leaf) are made up of fundamental particles that interact according to the laws of physics. Underlying all of reality, as far as we know, are the laws of physics.

If you want more information about how science can explain the world, I strongly recommend Carl Sagan’s The Demon Haunted World. His book, though over twenty years old now, is more relevant now than it was when it was written.


In science, to make sense of the world, we use layers of abstraction to make understanding it more simple. It would do no-one any good to refer to the way that green is generated in the reflection of light from a leaf every time we need to mention it. It’s much easier to just say “green”.

And our brains also abstract reality. We do not see the atoms jiggling around, instead we feel temperature. We do not feel three different frequencies of light being received, we just see colors.

Sometimes, we feel like something is not true that is. This can happen when it’s uncomfortable – i.e. the thing we are hearing about contradicts our pre-existing beliefs, but it can also happen for other reasons. For example physics spent over 1,000 years realizing that some of the “obvious” tenets that Aristotle wrote about were not true. And it took great minds to unpack that.

Us regular folk do not have time to learn everything that we might care to learn about. We cannot know the intricacies of climate science, of sociology, of biology, of vaccine research, nor of astrophysics or quantum physics. We rely on their validity on a daily basis.

If you don’t trust science, you should not drive, and certainly not across a bridge. You shouldn’t bother to drink filtered water, take anti-biotics, visit the doctor, or – honestly – do anything you do on a daily basis.

Don’t cross a bridge if you don’t trust science

Recently, there have been some outbreaks of damaging unscientific thinking. Those who voted for Brexit because of immigration concerns* and those who voted for Trump because of the rise of China, voted despite the established economic and sociological science. Those who oppose serious climate action, no matter their personal financial benefit in the short-term, are destroying the life chances of hundreds of thousands of people, despite the clear scientific evidence. Those that do not vaccinate their children against measles, mumps, and rubella (or German Measles) using the MMR vaccine are ignoring the science and causing the deaths of others. And the same with the COVID-19 and influenza vaccines.

The point is, if you think you know anything that is not supported by the science / the evidence, then you need to have an explanation for it. And if what you believe hurts other people (e.g. if you’re a Christian fundamentalist or a Muslim fundamentalist with gay relatives, you’re probably hurting them) then it’s probably worth investigating why that’s the case.

Some fear that unscientific thinking is damaging nations like the UK and the USA. And recent elections for Trump, Johnson, and Biden – all people who reject the established science in their decision-making – suggest that this might not be an overblown fear. I don’t know whether it’s true that people are becoming less scientific in their outlooks. The response to COVID-19 by anti-maskers and anti-vaxxers has been alarming. And the complete absence of the necessary actions in response to climate change is even more alarming.

Let’s commit to educating the next generation to be more scientifically competent. Let’s stop homeschooling where religious parents deny their children an opportunity to learn truth. And let’s make the separation of church and state clearer. Separation of church and state should not mean that children may not pray at school, it should just mean that children are not led in secular prayer by their educators.

Who to trust

The meek will inherit the Earth. So why are so many Christians so sure they know the truth? This is not an attack specifically on fundamentalist Christians, more an attack on the arrogance that any of us have if we think we know anything at all. We all rely on authority – the important thing is to ensure that the authorities we trust are basing what they know on a solid foundation. Trusting politicians, clergy, prophets, or self-proclaimed pundits is risky. Better to trust those who have done the actual, scholarly, research.

* Personally, I do not think voting for Brexit or Trump are necessarily signs of unscientific thinking. The rich gained a lot of tax breaks under Trump, and Brexit is such a complex issue that it could have pros and cons for different people and perspectives. But, if you are poor and voted for Trump because he's a Christian, or you voted for Brexit because "immigrants are taking our jobs" then you are mistaken, sadly. I do think there were concerns for countries like Bulgaria which has had their population gutted as the educated move to richer countries in the Union, but that is mostly a benefit for Britain and only an ethical concern for the Bulgarians left behind.

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