“All I know is that I don’t know, nothing” (Operation Ivy, Energy; 1991)

The goal to circumvent the fact that absolute “knowledge” does not exist. This is something that I think a lot about as a scientist.

One of my professors used to ask, “what is an electron?”

Now, I should know the answer, right? I am a physicist. I could certainly explain to a student all of the appropriate knowledge they would need to have of the electron for their test. However, any good physicist will admit that physics never actually answers the question of what it actually is. That question is, in fact, not answerable at all, because it requires an absolute scale, which itself doesn’t exist.

Even in the ‘precise’ study of science we still require relative knowledge. When we talk about a single object we can never tell you what it is, we can only tell you what its properties are. For instance a physicist might tell you that a block has mass of 10g. One might say I have absolutely defined an attribute of the block; however a gram is defined by the density of water (1 gram is 1 cubic centimeter). Thus by stating that the block’s mass is 10g, one is really making a comparison to the equivalent mass of water. Similarly, distances are define by the speed of light so if one states that something is 10cm long they are really comparing it to the length of space that light travels in the appropriate time interval.

This example illustrates the assumption of this post.

All knowledge is relative

I certainly don’t claim the first to assert this fact. I just think it helpful when building an active philosophy. The reason being is that striving for absolute knowledge is a futile effort because there is no such thing as absolute knowledge. However, relative knowledge in combination with faith can emulate absolute knowledge.

One of the basic limitations of knowledge is language. Language forces us to ‘cut’ corners in our description of something (hence the expression ‘a picture is worth a thousand words’). When we describe something in thought it is usually done in words. By using word to describe something, you are effectively comparing it to some type of form, which can range from something concrete and specific like “a square” to something complex and difficult to define like “a personality.” A form is really any value that can be assigned to an attribute of something. Thus by using a word to describe something you are automatically comparing it to something else. This means that if you develop knowledge of any type you require that you compare it to something else.

Another basic limitation of knowledge is our inability to probe our existence in an absolute manner. The example that I can’t stop thinking about is the color red. We as humans have decided to call electromagnetic radiation with a wavelength about 425 nm to be red. This interesting part is when you ask the question, but how do we know something is “red”?

The first response is that you say it is red because two people agree that it is “red.” But how do you have them agree that they are looking at the same color. One way would be to show them a rainbow of colors and then ask them to point to which color the red object was on the rainbow. If the two people (or if billions of people) agree that the object is red, then in terms of relative (to a rainbow) knowledge that something can be called red. However, this still begs the question but what is “red?” physics attempts to answer that question but the explanation is yet another comparison. Photons (light) are really just EM excitations of the space, but only exist relative the the vacuum state. Thus their ‘existence’ is defined relative to something else (conversely the vacuum state is define by a lack of photons, so it is also a relative knowledge).

Despite the fact that we can never define anything on absolute terms, relative knowledge is essential to and has the ability to comprehend and expand upon one’s existence. Relative knowledge allows us to live our lives. We always know how to get home relative to where we are now, we always know what we can and cannot eat, we always know to open doors before walking through them, etc. These things are often taking for granted.

When faith is applied to relative knowledge it emulates absolute knowledge. A more appropriate way of saying this, is that we can construct an ‘absolute’ knowledge base that we share as a humanity in hopes that it well help future generations thrive. Although is fundamentally relative (as all knowledge is), it is absolute in the sense that it applies to the human experience. This is important when considering things like history when planning for the future. You need to draw from humanity’s (vast) absolute knowledge base to make an advanced and progressive decisions.


About activephilosophy

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4 Responses to Knowledge

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