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A Theory of Knowledge

Mark Holmquist

“Knowledge,” a layman might remark, “is simple to define. It is what I know to be true.” This

definition, unfortunately for laymen and philosophy students everywhere (but rather fortunately for

professors of epistemology), does not suffice. The definition breaks down almost immediately. What of

things which are possible to know, but are in fact not known by any one person at the time? “Well,” the

laywoman next to him might add, “we can simply say that knowledge is everything that it is possible to

know.” The statement only defers the inquirer, however, to ask how to define the verb “to know.” Thus

one finds oneself in a quandary. What is knowledge?

I begin to answer this question for myself by considering knowledge to be the set of all bits of

information it is possible for any receptacle of information to hold. Thus, for an individual to know

everything would be to hold this entire set in that individual's brain, which is physically impossible

with the amount of information that exists. Consider how difficult it is to know where one person is at

every nanosecond of the day. Now try it for every particle in the universe. The sort of person who could

know all of that will never, can never come into being.

However, it is possible to hold a part of that set in a receptacle. Thus, it is said to be possible

for a human being, which includes one such receptacle (a brain), to know something. Now, how does

one recognize that one knows something? The most logical answer is that one knows something when

one has that thing in their brain and has proof that it is correct. Thus, if a person thinks that they saw

brownies for sale in the Commons, but upon relaying this information to a friend, is shown that, in fact,

the dessert menu included only pudding that day, they may have believed that the Commons was

selling brownies before, but the moment they were presented with compelling evidence to the contrary,

they believed it no longer. Similarly, if a person thinks that a supreme being created the universe, but

they have no proof, then they do not truly know that a supreme being created the universe. Thought
without sufficient proof to support it, or despite evidence against it, is a folly of human origin called

“belief.” Once a thought is proven, though, it becomes knowledge.

Knowledge in general requires two things: One, a place to store information. Examples include

brains, computer storage, written languages (paper, stone, etc.), and analog forms of data retention

(magnetic tape, bumps on material, CDs). This requirement only allows thoughts to be recorded, so that

they may be considered for the status of knowledge. Two, a system for evaluating the validity of

information. If a human simply accepted every piece of information that passed through the eyes or

ears as true, our culture would be far less interesting and a lot less advanced. Many literary works

would not appeal to such a person—parts would seem to contradict, when a character lied—and some

forms of humor would die out quickly. Thus, we have rules built in to us for evaluating information

based on proof, reason, and (unfortunately) intuition. These rules are the beginnings of a foolproof

system to elevate simple information, simple ideas, to true knowledge. Rules of reason and of

evaluating evidence are the basis for all human knowledge, and the development thereof.

Socrates, in Plato's Meno, says “As the soul is immortal...there is nothing which it has not

learned...[a]s the whole of nature is akin...nothing prevents a man, after recalling one thing

only...discovering everything else for himself, if he is brave and does not tire of the search[.]” (81c)

Though altered somewhat, I believe that this quote truly defines how humans come across knowledge,

with some interpretation. Socrates seems to argue some supernatural method of obtaining divine

knowledge and superior intellect. This, I would guess, is a direct contradiction of the “proof”

requirement, since there is no way to be sure that souls are immortal or that they even exist. However,

the method he suggests for discovering knowledge seems to me very much like my “system of reason”

method. His statement, “[a]s the whole of nature is akin,” seems to be citing some universal system of

laws, by which it is possible to “discover[] everything for [one]self[.]” This, I would say, is logic. In

more specific or scientific scenarios, such a system might be declared “laws of physics” or “laws of

nature,” but in this case, I am more concerned with discovering and applying such laws than with
actually knowing them.

So, to know something, one must have the idea stored in some format, and one must prove the

idea's truth through evidence and the application of logic. Thus, there are two categories of things

which it is impossible to know: Things which are impossible to conceive, or to record; and things

which are impossible to prove. Things which are impossible to record might include such things as

those that are not visible (for example, things outside the scope of the visible universe), those that are

too large for a human being to handle (for example, an infinite scope of time), or those which are found

outside of the four dimensions we are capable of perceiving (three of space, one of time). Things which

are impossible to conceive might include the meaning of life, which is too simplified a concept to

encompass many diverse, complex ideas. Things which are impossible to prove include the existence of

a supreme power, the existence of alternate universes, the existence of dimensions that we cannot

perceive, the existence of souls, and the existence of a whole lot of other things that are imperceptible

and therefore impossible to verify as truly existing. Also, it is impossible to prove many theories about,

say, the pre-Big Bang era. Any evidence of such an epoch was erased from history at the Big Bang, so

it is essentially imperceptible as well.

Though I take many of my cues from Plato, I disagree with his main point, which is the

supernatural portion of the argument. While his system of knowledge includes souls as information-

retaining entities which pass from a living being to the afterlife, then back into a new living being, and

which never die, mine relies only on an abstract system of logic and fundamental laws which are

inherent to the universe in which we find ourselves. Plato's system also calls learning “recollection,”

whereas I would call it “deduction” or “the application of universal truths.” A system independent of

divine intervention is inherently a better model, because it removes a severe weakness in the argument.

Any system dependent on a supernatural power can only stand as long as no one questions that power.

The minute it is questioned, it collapses. Thus, a more logical and straightforward system is much

preferred, and would be accepted, most likely, by many of today's scholars in a heartbeat.