The Other I

June 30, 2011

How do I know what I know?

How do we know what we know, and how sure can we be that what we think we know is right?

I’ve been asking this question since I first realized as a graduate student how many great minds have grappled with this most obvious of questions.

The reason it remains such a critical question is because the unfortunate fact is that being absolutely sure, beyond the shadow of any possible doubt that I am right, is no a guarantee that I’m not wrong.

I’ve been thinking recently about the fundamental areas where I have changed my mind during my life.  Obviously, there are questions of faith.  For the first two and a half decades of my life, I believed in the reality of heaven and hell, and that I was destined for one or the other for eternity.  Since then many more of the pillars of belief have fallen.

I have changed my mind about scientific conclusions when new research suggests that the original conclusions were wrong.  I’ve also changed my mind when I realized I misunderstood the original evidence in the first place.  Perhaps most importantly, I’ve changed my mind about other people’s motives.  There have been times when I have been certain about why someone behaved in a certain way.  And sometimes I have been distressingly wrong.

I do have a few convictions about which I am certain enough to live by.  I consider many of these an act of faith – that is beyond empirical proof.  Simply to be alive is one of these values.  Even to be is a value, so that whatever exists has an intrinsic value.  To be part of the mysterious evolution of this universe is a value.  To live with integrity and respect for myself and for everything and everyone else in the universe is a value.  To love and care for those who are in my life is a value.

Why?  Where does this unprovable certainty come from?  And could it be wrong?  Of course.

My own values could be as wrong as those who have been willing to kill and to die in order to eradicate others who do not agree with their most fundamental values.  Usually they take the form of religious beliefs but not always.  Scientists are sometimes arrogantly certain about facts that science cannot guarantee.  So to be wrong about my own convictions is both possible and terrifying  –  I might be wrong about the most important  decisions in my life.

Martin Luther said that doubt is an essential component of faith.  I know what he meant.  It seems to me that honesty requires that I entertain the possibility of doubt about whatever it is that I think I know.

Possibly especially about those things about which I think I am most certain.



  1. A good post. Nice balance between conviction and humility.
    (There’s an unwritten rule: no one can correctly guess all the contents of the cosmic envelope!)


    Comment by sanstorm — July 1, 2011 @ 9:41 pm | Reply

    • Too bad we didn’t touch base years ago. Back then I could have told you all the contents of the cosmic envelope.

      Thanks for the comment.


      Comment by Terry Sissons — July 2, 2011 @ 1:46 pm | Reply

  2. If I was ever wrong I would be the first to know.
    (Said to me by an old friend.)
    George Hopkins


    Comment by George Hopkins — October 24, 2013 @ 4:40 pm | Reply

    • Perfect! Thank you.


      Comment by theotheri — October 24, 2013 @ 7:57 pm | Reply

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