“But as for certain truth, no man has known it, nor will he know it; neither of the gods, nor yet of all the things of which I speak.  And even if by chance he were to utter the final truth, he would himself not know it: for all is but a woven web of guesses.”  (Xenophanes via Karl Popper)

“There is nothing like consistent experience to impress one with the validity of an idea.”  (Harry Stack Sullivan)

I am a skeptic.  I think about knowledge and truth claims as elements of a conversation.  That is, except in that they have truly been asserted, ideas do not count as knowledge or truth to me.  I do behave as if I believe things, but when thinking about them, I remain skeptical.  I do experience something I call ‘certainty,’ and I routinely bet my life on the predictive power of ideas like the laws of physics, but I wouldn’t bet my soul on the Truth of any assertion I’ve ever heard.

My sense of certainty seems to be based on whether I feel safe, and whether I have any conflicting information.  When I hold my keyboard up and think about dropping it, I imagine it will fall if I do, and I feel safe and unconflicted about that thought.  When I imagine it would float, I feel a conflict—not safe—about that thought.  The factors seem to be reliability—things always seem to fall when I drop them—and mental congruence—the assertion under consideration doesn’t conflict with other assertions I’ve collected and made friends with.

I can feel the most certain about what I am thinking and feeling in the moment.  Right now I am thinking the sentence ‘Right now I am thinking the sentence….’ I am hearing a humming sound.  I am feeling an uncomfortable sensation in my middle back.  I believe those assertions were true as I wrote them.  I am also aware that my senses can and have been fooled, and that translating experience into language is limited and limiting.  In other words, I’m more certain that I had an experience that I was trying to describe with the sentence ‘I am feeling an uncomfortable sensation in my middle back’ than I am in the truth of the sentence itself.

I can feel next most certain about episodic knowledge—memories of experiences like I described above.  The less intense the experience was and the further back in time it was, the less sure I get about it.  I feel certain that a few minutes ago I was feeling a certain uncomfortable sensation in my middle back.  Tomorrow, I will probably be less certain.

I also feel more or less certain about ideas based on the strength of their communities of support.  The more people who agree on an idea and the more I respect those people, the more comfortable I am treating the idea as knowledge.  My respect for someone’s thinking is based on their expertise on the topic and their reasonableness.  Their expertise on the topic has to do with their depth of knowledge and experience.  Are they just saying what they’ve read, or have they followed the injunctions of their field themselves? My perception of their reasonableness probably has to do with the extent to which their epistemology resembles my own, and whether or not I perceive that their value structure allows them to question their assumptions.

Thus, when it comes to the direction of my internal conversation, I weight each assertion I come across somewhere between an opinion and a vote.  Anyone can have an opinion, regardless of their expertise or reasonableness, but I only give votes to reasonable experts.

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