A Dangerous Knowledge


Many science bloggers are dedicating this week to a week of pure science, in which they are posting a single non-controversial science piece each day. Since I barely manage to get out a quality post every other day, and also since I'm writing a paper on a controversial subject (global warming), I had to decline my invitation to join. However, I admire their effort, and so I'll try to at least be a bit more serious this week. In other words, I'll share some old papers with actual citations in them, rather than just muttering about chaos and posting pretty pictures. I've chosen a few which bring together science and philosophy, in addition to the pretty pictures and chaotic ramblings.

Ok. In part, I'm just trying to be evil. When my husband was looking to fill an extra slot in his college schedule, I suggested that he take an intro to philosophy class. Now, he's working on his first homework assignment, which asks the classic epistemological question, "How do you know this is not a dream?" Alan's initial answer was fairly circular: "Because it obviously is not." So, I've been having fun with that... whispering "you're in the Matrix" and posing skeptical questions. Well, at some point, I figured I ought to stop teasing, and pull out a paper I wrote on the subject for a similar class. It doesn't answer the question he's been asked... but it does explain why it is a worthy question.

A Dangerous Knowledge

By Karmen Lee Franklin


Since the dawn of human evolution, we have made attempts to understand the world around us. While we have managed to read the recipes for life from the most basic chemicals, and built a vast network of cities, spanning the earth, we have not yet managed to explain the whole of reality around us. The ancient Greeks described this whole as the kosmos, or cosmos, meaning order, in contrast to (and existing within) khaos, or chaos. The terms seem simple; however, epistemologists, or those who study knowledge itself, discovered such simple terms describe vastly complex ideas. Many conventions have been found to describe these issues, but it is difficult to find one convention more correct than another. However, scientists and philosophers have discovered that the cosmos is undergoing a constant evolution. They found that our perceptions are mere fragments of this reality; fragile and fading moments, available to us only in the form of an optical illusion. Can it be wise to explore such a delicately crafted illusion?

In search of new mediums for expressing the issues raised by this apparent deception, the surrealists of the early twentieth century sought to combine the spirit of inquiry with classical and modern art. The French artist, Rene Magritte, through a striking variety of images, was perhaps the most successful amongst his contemporaries at this pursuit. One particular painting stands as a warning to those who attempt to understand such reflections. In the composition, a woman holds a large mirror, covering her figure. In the reflection of the mirror, we see an image of what appears to be the same woman, turned away, clutching her chest. We might ask: Is there a series of mirrors, unseen in the painting, which reflect an image from a different time? Or does the woman simply have a twin, who is posing as shyly as she? Does she ask, "Is she me?" Does she want to see the image in the mirror? No, she turns her head. If we cannot know for certain what lies in the mirror, why should we look? This could be a dangerous meeting, as the title of the painting, Dangerous Liaisons, suggests.

Indeed, when we examine a painting, we are not seeing the actual colors on the page or canvas, but a fading after-image of the painting that was. Instead, our brain interprets a copy of this image, the original of which has changed, aged slightly, by the time a signal fires in our neurons. This concept is not new to scientists or philosophers. In fact, the ancient Hindus understood this concept and called it maya, or illusion. They, like the subject of Dangerous Liaisons, found this was a decent reason for not looking into the mirror, but focusing elsewhere. Why poke at an illusion? This same attitude is taken by skeptics who believe it is impossible for us to have any sort of correct knowledge, even today. A well-known, but seldom attributed quote by the French mathematician/ philosopher, Henri Poincare, insisted that we look. "It is far better to foresee even without certainty than not to foresee at all" ("Foundations" 129). Many others have ignored the warnings of skeptics, as well, constructing theories and a framework by which to examine epistemological questions.

During the 17th century, amidst revolutions in both philosophy and science, Rene Descartes struggled to define the basis of our knowledge. By examining and questioning the source of his personal knowledge, he decided that the purest truths must come from an innate form of rational thought. He felt this ability was set into us at birth by some higher being, as a universal tool for understanding. He wrote, "if the objective reality of any of my ideas turns out to be so great that I am sure the same reality does not reside in me.... and hence that I myself cannot be its cause, it will necessarily follow that I am not alone in the world, but that some other thing which is the cause of this idea also exists" (83-84). This method of reasoning led to the foundation of modern rationalism, the idea that our knowledge is based solely on the activity in our minds. The rationalists made a distinction between themselves and the empiricists, who believed all knowledge came from our sensory experience. Having made such a distinction, however, contradictions arose, and philosophers found themselves little closer to a clear image of knowledge. While both empirical knowledge and rational knowledge seemed to fit our methods of learning, such distinctions were difficult to prove, in either case.

Immanuel Kant made attempts to further clarify this issue, focusing on other distinctions. He set aside the empiricist/rationalist division, which he described as a difference between sensibility and understanding, seeing that both types of knowledge were necessary for examining reality. In A Critique of Pure Reason, he wrote, "without sensibility no object would be given to us, without understanding, no object would be thought" (127). Kant believed we are unable to experience the world firsthand, left only with our sensations. Despite this, he assumed, like Descartes, that we have a universal set of tools by which we have the ability to share our knowledge. Kant and Descartes both saw reality as an absolute. The idea of the absolute, however, creates another difficult dichotomy. Is reality subjective, relative to each individual perspective, or is it as Kant describes; objective, an absolute, determinable truth?

These theories, while providing apparent contradictions, all seem to apply to our knowledge of reality in some way. Can one be more correct than the other? Since we are only trying to understand a fraction of a reflected illusion, complex beyond imagination, it is quite possible that these contradictions co-exist. To ask if one perspective is more correct than another is analogous to asking if one type of physical measurement is more correct than another. Henri Poincare, who was inspired by Kant, described the way this problem applied to mathematics. "Is Euclidean geometry true?" He asked. "It has no meaning. We might as well ask if the metric system is true, and if the old weights and measures are false; if Cartesian co-ordinates are true and polar co-ordinates false. One geometry cannot be more true than another; it can only be more convenient" ("Hypothesis" 50). In this respect, divisions like subjective/objective and rationalist/empiricist are mere conventions, like the forms of mathematics and measurement, useful only when most convenient.

If we must look at the illusion, and interpret the fragments we see, how can we decide which conventions to choose? The contemporary theory of pragmatism, described by Charles Sanders Pierce and William James, and popularized by education guru John Dewey, offers an interpretative guide in the true American spirit of the pursuit of happiness. They suggested we carefully select which method of understanding knowledge is most effective in a particular situation. Much like Occam's razor, we must select the most basic, but most effective method. For instance, William James explains: "Of two competing views of the universe which in all other respects are equal, but of which the first denies some vital human need while the second satisfies it, the second will be favored by sane men for the simple reason that it makes the world seem more rational" (84). Friedrich Nietzsche also believed we must discover understanding for ourselves, despite the chaos surrounding our individual cosmoses. Instead of shrinking from the uncertainty of the illusion, he encourages us to embrace it. "I say unto you," says the hero of his novel, Thus Spoke Zarathusra, "one must still have chaos in oneself to be able to give birth to a dancing star. I say unto you: you still have chaos in yourselves." (17).

We only see a fraction of an ever-changing cosmos. Each fragment that we observe, whether within ourselves or gleaned from the sensations registered in our minds, adds to the entropy of the cosmos, inducing more change. It is an imperfect pursuit, but we are active participants, whether we choose to look, or not. It is important for humankind, armed with a variety of tools and conventions for understanding, to try to gain as much knowledge as we are able. With that knowledge, we successfully add to the diversity of the evolving whole. We may not be able to know with certainty, but we can improve our knowledge with what we perceive with uncertainty. Therefore, go ahead and look, through the smoke and into the mirror, (but not through it,) for the surface of the glass is the surface of reality.


Descartes, Rene. "Meditations on First Philosophy." The Philosophical Journey. Ed. William F. Lawhead. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill, 2006. 83-85.
Kant, Immanuel. "Critique of Pure Reason." The Philosophical Journey. Ed. William F. Lawhead. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill, 2006. 127-131.
Nietzsche, Friedrich. Thus Spoke Zarathusra. New York, NY: Viking Penguin, Inc., 1954.
Poincare, Henri. The Foundations of Science. Lancaster: The Science Press, 1946.
-- Science and Hypothesis. London: The Walter Scott Publishing Company, 1905.
Rene Magritte. Dangerous Liaisons. 1926. Oil on canvas. 72 x 64 cm. Private collection.

More like this

Update: Trivial prediction: more Muslims will die because of "protests" and riots because of the Danish cartoons than non-Muslims. Matt McIntosh has posted a piece titled We Have Met the Enemy, and He Is Us at my other blog. It has spawned a lot of comments. Many people were offended by the way…
You're wondering - I know you are - about the unexplored connection between Kant and Cats. And I need to begin by disappointing you: this is not one of his. This is nameless cat from Vallouise whose only sin was to stumble into my viewfinder. I should continue by saying that I'm going to parrot…
Salon has an interview with Karen Armstrong, and I don't know whether the interviewer just did a poor job or whether her ideas really are that sloppy and confused. She definitely has interesting ideas about religion, but while she's dismissing simplistic ideas about gods and the afterlife on the…
Some time back, I saw Brother Guy Consolmagno talk at Boskone, and said "You know, I should invite him to campus." For those who don't recognize the name, he's an SF fan and an astronomer (well, planetary scientist) who also happens to be a Jesuit brother. He works at the Vatican Observatory, where…

I once took a philosophy class where we spend a couple of days discussing the "how do you know you're not dreaming / in the Matrix?" question. Finally, I got tired of the discussion and blurted out, "I can't prove I'm not in the Matrix, but can you give me some reason to think that I am?" Turned out that was exactly what the professor wanted to hear! It would make a pretty short paper, though. :-)

Just to clarify, it's not that you can't post on controversial topics, but they must be controversial for legitimate scientific reasons (ie, not simply political or cultural hotbutton issues).

I can really pinpoint which is the biggest crowdsourcing website (in terms of brand recognition). There are always seem to be a new one popping up which I've never heard. This time it's Crowdflower. The learning continues...