TED Conversations

Christopher Sean Thomas

Technical Support Specialist, Daytona State College


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How do we know what we know, and how should we? My ultimate question, and hopefully the right forum for answers.

I am not sure what really brings TED together, but I am starting to wonder if it is to a degree an embodiment of this question, so who better to ask than the people who make up ted.
This question has been present in my mind for a long time now, I have considered writing a book on it, and in the end it just appeared to be rants because I really do not know the answer.
I just watched "Noreena Hertz: How to use experts -- and when not to" brings this question back to the for-front of my mind with such strength I wonder if it really ever truly became less of a focus of my life. I ask people who walk around proclaiming what they know, what makes them think they KNOW what it is they are telling me or everyone else. I go to college with students who may have never experienced life because they went straight to college, but who are convinced they know more than some of their instructors, while they claim other instructors have some secret knowledge that trumps all other knowledge.
I would think that educators would embody the answer more than anyone else, but the ones who seem the most intelligent and likely to have the answer are the same ones who question the very words that make them seem more wise than others. They don't know either. They aren't sure.

So.. if you can, watch the ted talk, although the comments aren't overwhelmingly positive, she poses the question I ask more as a statement, but articulates it much more clearly.

The video and this are the base of this debate: Our world is made of simple things, and we are the ones who try to make sense of those things with complex answers, most of which add up. So much complexity exists that specialization is needed till we have experts we look to for answers.. I believe it is because we have so many simple answers we no longer question that these paradigms exist for as long as they do, because someone who doesn't know better didn't ask the question experts are far too past to see.

How do we know what we know? Really.


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    Feb 25 2011: Warning: I'm about to plunge into philosophy. I might not make much sense.

    There is only one fact in the entire universe that we can be absolutely sure of; I know, for a fact, that I exist. Everything past that is ultimately assumption.

    I know I exist. I know I have free will because I can consciously choose to engage in specific actions or modes of behavior. I assume that my body exists because all that I experience is filtered through that body. I feel it. But if I lose a limb, I have not become less. My body is of me, but is not me. I assume the world exists because my body senses it's presence, and because of the validation of it's reality by others. I assume that others exist because of my senses. I believe they are distinct entities because I do not control their actions. I believe that they possess free will because the actions I take based on free will are similar to the actions taken by those others. But all these things, my body, the world, the inhabitants of the world, could arguably be the fantasy of evolved energy on another plane, a creature dreaming the world. The key here is evidence. The world evidentially exists because of the evidence of it's existence.

    If gravity exists, then I predict that when I let go of an object in a gravitational field it will fall towards the center of that gravitational field. I let go of the object and it falls to the ground, thus I know that gravity exists. If everything past my own existence is assumption, how can I claim to know anything? If I can predict what will happen, why it happens, and it then does happen, I can then claim by all rationale that I know something.

    Knowledge requires both evidence and theory.
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      Feb 26 2011: Philosophy is a side interest to me in a big way, and while in no way could I call myself an expert, it is an area I can really love when the possible answers it gives you isn't like a snake eating its own tail.. You made some good philosophical points, but like so much of philosophy you can end up with the answer to a question my creating one or more new questions. If you could give a more literal answer what would you say? I imagine I could have been more clear and concise with my question, but hopefully this clears it up a bit. I guess I would ask how could those philosophical answers be applied to the problem we have at the complex level things are at now in most cultures?
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        Feb 28 2011: Einstein did not overthrow Newton. Newtons theory still holds true, within an equal ability to observe. Given Newtons ability to observe the planets, his theory is as accurate as possible. Newton wasn't wrong, he just isn't as accurate as Einstein. In a complex world there is much room for ambiguity, for 'as far as we can tell' or 'we don't know for sure'. Experts, especially those involved in critical situations, are expected to be certain. But this expectation cedes our own rationale to another, and denies the complexity of the situation. Allowing, expecting even, an expert to be uncertain gives us back our ability to reason. If a doctor tells me that, given my specific response to a disease, and based on these test results, I should take a course of action that has been shown through numerous other studies to be effective in dealing with the disease, then I will be able to decide for myself if this is the best course of action for me.

        If an expert presents their reasoning and their evidence, and gives an honest appraisal of the odds, and that expert has the credentials to back up their claims, then I have reason to believe that their opinion is valid. There is evidence of their understanding of the topic (a diploma, say, or being chief surgeon). In theory, some one who is chief surgeon is knowledgeable and capable. I can't know for sure that they will be absolutely correct this time, but I can rest assured that I did everything I could to make the best decision possible.

        We must accept ambiguity and uncertainty. We have to weigh the odds, and measure the consequences. We have to know that the experts are telling the truth (as far as they know the truth to be). I may not know, with absolute certainty, that this is the best course for me to take. But I can investigate my options to an extent that allows me to feel comfortable with the decision I must make.

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