Existence and Knowledge

Philosophical musings by a non-philosopher which are meant to be accessible to other non-philosophers.

Ontology is the branch of philosophy that deals with existence. Epistemology is the branch of philosophy that deals with knowledge.

I submit (with no claim to originality) that existence (what really is) is independent of knowledge (proposition A), but knowledge is impossible without existence (proposition B).

In proposition A, I include in existence those things that exist in the present, those things that have existed in the past, and the processes (happenings) by which past existences either end (e.g., death of an organism, collapse of a star) or become present existences (e.g., an older version of a living person, the formation of a new star). That which exists is real; existence is reality.

In proposition B, I mean knowledge as knowledge of that which exists, and not the kind of “knowledge” that arises from misperception, hallucination, erroneous deduction, lying, and so on. Much of what is called scientific knowledge is “knowledge” of the latter kind because, as scientists know (when they aren’t advocates) scientific knowledge is provisional. Proposition B implies that knowledge is something that human beings and other living organisms possess, to widely varying degrees of complexity. (A flower may “know” that the Sun is in a certain direction, but not in the same way that a human being knows it.) In what follows, I assume the perspective of human beings, including various compilations of knowledge resulting from human endeavors. (Aside: Knowledge is self-referential, in that it exists and is known to exist.)

An example of proposition A is the claim that there is a falling tree (it exists), even if no one sees, hears, or otherwise detects the tree falling. An example of proposition B is the converse of Cogito, ergo sum, I think, therefore I am; namely, I am, therefore I (a sentient being) am able to know that I am (exist).

Here’s a simple illustration of proposition A. You have a coin in your pocket, though I can’t see it. The coin is, and its existence in your pocket doesn’t depend on my act of observing it. You may not even know that there is a coin in your pocket. But it exists — it is — as you will discover later when you empty your pocket.

Here’s another one. Earth spins on its axis, even though the “average” person perceives it only indirectly in the daytime (by the apparent movement of the Sun) and has no easy way of perceiving it (without the aid of a Foucault pendulum) when it is dark or when asleep. Sunrise (or at least a diminution of darkness) is a simple bit of evidence for the reality of Earth spinning on its axis without our having perceived it.

Now for a somewhat more sophisticated illustration of proposition A. One interpretation of quantum mechanics is that a sub-atomic particle (really an electromagnetic phenomenon) exists in an indeterminate state until an observer measures it, at which time its state is determinate. There’s no question that the particle exists independently of observation (knowledge of the particle’s existence), but its specific characteristic (quantum state) is determined by the act of observation. Does this mean that existence of a specific kind depends on knowledge? No. It means that observation determines the state of the particle, which can then be known. Observation precedes knowledge, even if the gap is only infinitesimal. (A clear-cut case is the autopsy of a dead person to determine his cause of death. The autopsy didn’t cause the person’s death, but came after it as an act of observation.)

Regarding proposition B, there are known knowns, known unknowns, unknown unknowns, and unknown “knowns”. Examples:

Known knowns (real knowledge = true statements about existence) — The experiences of a conscious, sane, and honest person: I exist; am eating; I had a dream last night; etc. (Recollections of details and events, however, are often mistaken, especially with the passage of time.)

Known unknowns (provisional statements of fact; things that must be or have been but which are not in evidence) — Scientific theories, hypotheses, data upon which these are based, and conclusions drawn from them. The immediate causes of the deaths of most persons who have died since the advent of homo sapiens. The material process by which the universe came to be (i.e., what happened to cause the Big Bang, if there was a Big Bang).

Unknown unknowns (things that exist but are unknown to anyone) — Almost everything about the universe.

Unknown “knowns” (delusions and outright falsehoods accepted by some persons as facts) — Frauds, scientific and other. The apparent reality of a dream.

Regarding unknown “knowns”, one might dream of conversing with a dead person, for example. The conversation isn’t real, only the dream is. And it is real only to the dreamer. But it is real, nevertheless. And the brain activity that causes a dream is real even if the person in whom the activity occurs has no perception or memory of a dream. A dream is analogous to a movie about fictional characters. The movie is real but the fictional characters exist only in the script of the movie and the movie itself. The actors who play the fictional characters are themselves, not the fictional characters.

There is a fine line between known unknowns (provisional statements of fact) and unknown “knowns” (delusions and outright falsehoods). The former are statements about existence that are made in good faith. The latter are self-delusions of some kind (e.g., the apparent reality of a dream as it occurs), falsehoods that acquire the status of “truth” (e.g., George Washington’s false teeth were made of wood), or statements of “fact” that are made in bad faith (e.g., adjusting the historic temperature record to make the recent past seem warmer relative to the more distant past).

The moral of the story is that a doubting Thomas is a wise person.

Through a Glass Darkly

In yesterday’s post I touched on epistemology, “the study of the nature of knowledge, justification, and the rationality of belief”. I have been touching on the subject for a while. (See, for example, “Rationalism, Empiricism, and Scientific Knowledge“, “Further Pretensions of Knowledge“, “The Fragility of Knowledge“, “Deduction, Induction, and Knowledge“, “The Pretence of Knowledge“, and especially “Words Fail Us“.)

The most compelling writer on the subject is Alfred North Whitehead, whose concept of the “fallacy of misplaced concreteness” I apply in “Diminishing Marginal Utility and the Redistributive Urge“. The fallacy, as described by Wikipedia, is this:

[O]ne commits the fallacy of misplaced concreteness when one mistakes an abstract belief, opinion, or concept about the way things are for a physical or “concrete” reality.

What, then, is physical reality? According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Whitehead sees it thus (citations omitted):

Whitehead was dissatisfied with Hume’s reduction of perception to sense perception because, as Hume discovered, pure sense perception reveals a succession of spatial patterns of impressions of color, sound, smell, etc. (a procession of forms of sense data), but it does not reveal any causal relatedness to interpret it (any form of process to render it intelligible)….

Whitehead rejected Newton’s conception of nature as the succession of instants of spatial distribution of bits of matter for two reasons. First: the concept of a “durationless” instant, “without reference to any other instant”, renders unintelligible the concepts of “velocity at an instant” and “momentum at an instant” as well as the equations of motion involving these concepts. Second: the concept of self-sufficient and isolated bits of matter, having “the property of simple location in space and time”, cannot “give the slightest warrant for the law of gravitation” that Newton postulated….

In Whitehead’s eyes, however, the development of Maxwell’s theory of electromagnetism constituted an antidote to Newton’s scientific materialism, for it led him to conceive the whole universe as “a field of force—or, in other words, a field of incessant activity”. The theory of electromagnetism served Whitehead to overcome Newton’s “fallacy of simple location”, that is, the conception of nature as a universe of self-sufficient isolated bits of matter. Indeed, we cannot say of an electromagnetic event that it is

here in space, and here in time, or here in space-time, in a perfectly definite sense which does not require for its explanation any reference to other regions of space-time.


Whitehead … noticed that, in a sense, physicists are even more reductionist than Hume. In practice they rely on sense data, but in theory they abstract from most of the data of our five senses (sight, hearing, smell, taste, and touch) to focus on the colorless, soundless, odorless, and tasteless mathematical aspects of nature. Consequently, in a worldview inspired not by the actual practices of physicists, but by their theoretical speculations, nature—methodologically stripped from its ‘tertiary’ qualities (esthetical, ethical, and religious values)—is further reduced to the scientific world of ‘primary’ qualities (mathematical quantities and interconnections such as the amplitude, length, and frequency of mathematical waves), and this scientific world is bifurcated from the world of ‘secondary’ qualities (colors, sounds, smells, etc.). Moreover, the former world is supposed, ultimately, to fully explain the latter world (so that, for example, colors end up as being nothing more than electromagnetic wave-frequencies)….

Whitehead’s alternative is fighting “the Fallacy of Misplaced Concreteness”—the “error of mistaking the abstract for the concrete”—because “this fallacy is the occasion of great confusion in philosophy”. The fallacy of misplaced concreteness is committed each time abstractions are taken as concrete facts, and “more concrete facts” are expressed “under the guise of very abstract logical constructions”. This fallacy lies at the root of the modern philosophical confusions of scientific materialism and progressive bifurcation of nature. Indeed, the notion of simple location in Newton’s scientific materialism is an instance of the fallacy of misplaced concreteness—it mistakes the abstraction of in essence unrelated bits of matter as the most concrete reality from which to explain the relatedness of nature.

Inasmuch as human beings are incapable of knowing the true essence of reality, true knowledge is beyond our ken. We can only see the world through a glass darkly.

The Fragility of Knowledge

A recent addition to the collection of essays at “Einstein’s Errors” relies mainly on Christoph von Mettenheim’s Popper versus Einstein. One of Mettenheim’s key witnesses for the prosecution of Einstein’s special theory of relativity (STR) is Alfred Tarski, a Polish-born logician and mathematician. According to Mettenheim, Tarski showed

that all the axioms of geometry [upon which STR is built] are in fact nominalistic definitions, and therefore have nothing to do with truth, but only with expedience. [p. 86]


Tarski has demonstrated that logical and mathematical inferences can never yield an increase of empirical information because they are based on nominalistic definitions of the most simple terms of our language. We ourselves give them their meaning and cannot,therefore, get out of them anything but what we ourselves have put into them. They are tautological in the sense that any information contained in the conclusion must also have been contained in the premises. This is why logic and mathematics alone can never lead to scientific discoveries. [p. 100]

Mettenheim refers also to Alfred North Whitehead, a great English mathematician and philosopher who preceded Tarski. I am reading Whitehead’s Science and the Modern World thanks to my son, who recently wrote about it. I had heretofore only encountered the book in bits and snatches. I will have more to say about it in future posts. For now, I am content to quote this relevant passage, which presages Tarski’s theme and goes beyond it:

Thought is abstract; and the the intolerant use of abstractions is the major vice of the intellect. this vice is not wholly corrected by the recurrence to concrete experience. For after all, you need only attend to those aspects of your concrete experience which lie within some limited scheme. There are two methods for the purification of ideas. One of them is dispassionate observation by means of the bodily senses. But observation is selection. [p. 18]

More to come.