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The Illusion of Knowledge

 and the defining of truth

In these next paragraphs I present to you one of the more intense of philosophical dilemmas; the real nature of learning.  Whilst not strictly talking of shamanic practices, this section is shamanic in its application, which will become clear a little later on.

In a nutshell, learning’s ultimate goal is understanding; facts and knowledge inevitably get in the way of understanding because ego is attached to outcomes and not processes.  Please re-read it a few times if it is not making sense to start.  OK, on with the show...

“The fact is…”.

“The fact of the matter is…”.

“… and that’s a fact!“.

How many times have you heard someone’s version of what ‘the fact is’ and found that from your viewpoint of reality, the so called, ‘fact’ is not a fact in any shape or form to you?  The seemingly incontrovertible fact was simply another's interpretation of a set of data; often the same data from which you arrived at a totally different conclusion, given your point of view.

The main problem is that anything we wish to brand as, “truth”, “fact” or even “reliable assumption” ultimately requires subjective assessment.  Let’s set out a bit of background before we get too tangled up though... 

We constantly judge and assess data.  Am I hungry?, does that dog represent a danger?, am I prepared for work?, how fast should my car be going now?  These are moment to moment judgements and assessments necessitated by survival.  The main point here is that we are constantly assessing and judging data, now let’s look at how we assess that data,..

There are two methods of assessing anything, objective and subjective assessment.

Objective assessment is defined as one which is free of bias, personality and prejudice.  Objectivity is regarded as scientific, impartial & dispassionate; it will [theoretically] produce a consistent outcome which will be arrived at over and over given the same reference data.  Measuring a temperature with a good quality thermometer yields an essentially objective assessment; a result that any person could reasonably expect duplicate fully given the same variables.

Subjective assessment happens where one or more points of data are not classically ‘measurable’; the functional opposite of objective assessment, subjectivity utilises experience, judgement and personal scales.  Pain & love are classically subjective terms.  Subjective assessments require grading of the thing being assessed into a personal and non-material scale. 

“It is a cold day” is a subjective statement of personal opinion, suggesting a personal and relative set of references. 

“It is 18 degrees” is a [more] objective statement, based on the output of an instrument [thermometer] independent of emotions, opinion or bias.

Objective data is the goal of modern science.  Science’s [often forgotten] challenge to its devotees is to constantly challenge old data and constantly challenge every assumption, every measurement and every principle.  Science is based upon a thing called the, “scientific method”.

In a nutshell, the scientific method demands a theory be backed by experiments which produces results [observations] accurately predicted by that theory.  Science demands that the results of a valid experiment be consistently replicable.  To make this happen, scientists have to identify and control as many variables (things that may change the outcome) as they can. 

The scientific method tells us that once all of the variables are identified and controlled properly, then a valid experiment will yield the same results over and over.  Then altering a single variable with a subsequent alteration of outcome proves that the changed variable was the active factor in the changed outcome.  When achieved, such an outcome is scientifically ‘proven’. 

Most of science’s greatest breakthroughs have come when the inquiring minds of the day decided to re-examine the scientific facts of the day; discovering in the process that the popular interpretation of the data was ‘less than optimum’ (a nice way of saying, “wrong”) when reassessed from a different point of view. 

It is good to remember that some irrefutable facts from not that long ago included a completely flat world as the undisputed centre of the universe.

The ultimate goal of the modern scientific method is arguably to produce a fact.  The objective determination that a given thing is true.  Something which stands up to all methods of disproof and is completely and reliably replicable.  A collection of facts is called knowledge.  Those scientists mentally 'standing up and shouting' at these words can rest easy, your vindication is coming next in Understanding's Challenge.

Now it gets juicy!

Facts can not exist, by their own definition.  For anything to be perceived of as a fact, it has to be assessed; measured against the known technology and methods of the day.  A problem happens when a thing requires assessment, whether objective or subjective.  The very methods of assessment in themselves are only as valid as the understanding of the day and are totally subject to change in the face of evolving technologies and frames of reference.

Facts are, by definition, closed to further exploration, reinterpretation or change because they represent an irrefutable (absolute) truth, the very definition of 'fact'. Please open your mind to the thought that there may be no such thing as a fact; there is only our best understanding of the day given the quality of the available data and the quality and technology in methods with which we assess and analyse that data.

Truth is a concept which is just as unlikely.  Philosophers have been trying to define and teach ‘truth’ for centuries and seem no closer now than they ever have been. Truth, like love and pain, is totally subjective.  The 'spanner in the gearbox of truth' is pretty much based on one persistent problem alone,.. CHANGE. 

Change is the most constant thing we observe in our universe.  The passage of time is significant only in that it marks change, the difference between now and then.  The moments that have passed since starting this sentence and now are moments that will never be replicated again.  This is change happening.  It is a statistical likelihood that given enough readers, someone still reading this page instead of getting into their car a few minutes ago just avoided an accident in which they'd have been maimed or killed.  Change is always in action, we call it linear time.

Absolute truth is in itself subjective and ultimately false by its own definition, as it can be seen only from the known references of the perceiver observing and judging data as ‘truth’ at that time.  My definition of truth is something along the lines of, “what is conceived of as sufficiently accurate to satisfy the needs of the perceiver at that time”.

Knowledge is the presumed result of the process of accumulating facts to arrive at truth.  Knowledge is said to be built through learning.

Here is the problem though, if a fact is not open to challenge, then neither is knowledge built upon those facts.  This knowledge in absolute denies change and disavows the process of evolving understanding by its own definition.

Knowledge's truth is illogical, in that it is essentially 'made of facts' which deny that a person, a technology or a new discovery might materially invalidate the assumptions that lead to a thing being a ‘true fact’ in the first place.

The closest to telling the truth that a reasonably objective, honest person can come is to say, “My truth is...”.

Objective or subjective truth is judged from the framework of our construct.  Our construct is our framework of self, familial and societal norms; perceptions, viewpoints and frames of reference built by experience and learning. A society’s construct is basically the same thing, but on a bigger scale.

Constructs are continually exposed to change through further development, experience and learning.  You reading this site is a good example; your construct is likely to change in some small or large way during your experiences with these words, regardless of whether you agree with the content or not.

Both objective and subjective perceptions and assessments of a thing depend totally on the perceiver’s construct for that assessment. It is through the lens of our constructs, personal and societal, that we assess data and judge what we generally accept as fact, that which we call, "real".

This leaves us with the challenge that is posed by 'understanding'

So if facts and truth can not exist, it is understanding, our malleable and changing assessments of available data, that define our personal truths.  Honesty compels us to acknowledge this, whether scientist or new-age spiritualist.

Understanding's Challenge is to open your mind and leave it open to new interpretation of the same data.  We'll discuss this in more detail now,...




© Craig Berry - 1996 - 2010, All rights reserved - reproduction without written permission prohibited.