Reality Straight Up!

Thoughts & Observations of a Free Range Astrophysicist

How We Know What We Know

A Personal Journey

What does it mean to say, “I know?” The way that we answer that question matters. It matters a lot.

Where to start a series of articles about one of the most basic questions ever? This question is actually a juxtaposition of two different questions. On the one hand it could refer to the sort of show you might see on a documentary channel like Discovery. “How do we know that the Earth is round?” “How do we know that dinosaurs once roamed the planet?” “How do we know that when the refrigerator door is closed the light goes off?” That is a very practical kind of question inviting all manner of authoritative commentary bolstered by all sorts of evidence, all photogenic and shot in HD, of course.

But there is a second suite of issues to which the question might refer. When I was an undergraduate at Rice University in the 1970’s I became intrigued with epistemology, the branch of philosophy that concerns itself with the nature of knowledge. It is a fascinating topic. I took several classes, read books ranging from Kant’s “Critique of Pure Reason,” to Kuhn’s “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions,” to Pirsig’s “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance,” and I thought. The time was well spent but in the end two things bothered me: (1) After a few thousand years the philosophical community has yet to even reach a consensus on what knowledge is, much less on how to obtain it; and (2) There is often a huge gap between philosophers’ arguments and the answers to practical questions like, “Is it really a good idea to get on this airplane?”

Over the years that followed I earned a PhD in Space Physics and Astronomy, then went on to have an exciting and successful career as an astrophysicist working as part of teams responsible for the Hubble Space Telescope.  Along the way, though, I kept returning to that same question. “How do we know what we know?” But now my perspectives were rooted in hard experience and the question had changed to one of immediate and practical importance. “What is the best way to approach knowledge when that knowledge has real consequences?” It turns out that when posed in that fashion the question has real answers.

Here are a few things that I know:

  1. There are questions about which our opinions simply do not matter. There is a world out there that exists independently of what we think is true. That world is sublimely indifferent to our opinions, our wishful thinking, or how loudly we shout at the audiences of cable news channels. You would think that this would go without saying, but it doesn’t.
  2. Since the world doesn’t arrange itself to match our ideas it is up to us to arrange our ideas to better match the world. (Again, you would think this would be apparent.)
  3. There are some practical rules for arriving at knowledge that work wildly better than others.
  4. Most of the time people don’t apply those rules. In fact, people’s brains are programmed not to apply those rules. As a result a great deal of what people claim to “know” is, quite simply, wrong.
  5. Point 4 is a damned shame because all of this matters and it matters a lot! Whether acting as individuals, corporations, governments, or anything in between, our biggest blunders are usually caused by confusing what is we think is true with what really is true.
  6. In today’s world where things are changing at an ever-faster pace and the stakes always seem to be high those blunders increasingly bring with them a price that is higher than we can really afford to pay.

How We Know What We Know ^ A Personal Journey  © Dr. Jeff Hester
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Click on thumbnail to select post:

  • COVID-19 Arrives  The Humanitarian Disaster is HerePosted in Thoughts
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  • Typhoid Mary on Two Wheels  Spreading COVID one lap at a timePosted in Thoughts
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  • One Step at a Time  The  not-so-mysterious origin of lifePosted in For Your ConsiderationUnreasonable Faith
  • The Mind’s Siren Call  Being certain is a primrose pathPosted in For Your ConsiderationUnreasonable Faith
  • Constrained Hallucinations  How the brain uses science to perceive the worldPosted in For Your ConsiderationUnreasonable Faith
  • Entropy Redux  Why our universe isn’t boringPosted in For Your ConsiderationUnreasonable Faith
  • Currently new cases of COVID-19 in Arizona are doubling every 7 days. ICU beds in the state are already full. The rest of the country isn’t that far behind us. You do the math.

  • Now is not the time for scientists to be circumspect and silent. We are on the short end of a battle over whether truth even matters. If scientists do not stand up for what is real, who will?

  • The morning cyclist in my neighborhood may not be standing in the Michigan Statehouse carrying a gun and demanding her right to spread contagion far and wide, but she may as well be.

  • You know those nice charts and graphs that make it look like we are over the hump of COVID-19 and that things are about to get better? Those predictions are dead wrong, with an unfortunate emphasis on “dead.”

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  • There is a lot of information about COVID-19 out there, much of it misleading. When looking at the future, start with what the science really says.

  • If someone can’t tell you how they would know that they are wrong, they don’t have a clue whether they are right.

    This article originally appeared in my Astronomy Magazine column, For Your Consideration.

  • Once seemingly incomprehensible, the origin of life no longer seems such a mystery. Most of what once appeared as roadblocks are turning out to be superhighways.

    This article originally appeared in my Astronomy Magazine column, For Your Consideration.

  • Being certain lights up our brains like a junkie’s next hit. Literally. Unfortunately, being certain and being right are two very, very different things.

    This article originally appeared in my Astronomy Magazine column, For Your Consideration.

  • The unique worlds we each consciously inhabit – the only worlds we will ever experience – are constrained hallucinations, products of hypothesis testing by our predictive brains.

    This article originally appeared in my Astronomy Magazine column, For Your Consideration.

  • A month’s worth of sunlight could pay the entropy bill for a billion years of biological evolution. Entropy is evolution’s best friend.

    This article originally appeared in my Astronomy Magazine column, For Your Consideration.

Over his 30 year career as an internationally known astrophysicist, Dr. Jeff Hester was a key member of the team that repaired the Hubble Space Telescope. With one foot always on the frontiers of knowledge, he has been mentor, coach, team leader, award-winning teacher, administrator and speaker, to name a few of the hats he has worn. His Hubble image, the Pillars of Creation, was chosen by Time Magazine as among the 100 most influential photographs in history.
©Dr. Jeff Hester LLC, 5301 S. Superstition Mountain Dr., Suite 104 #171, Gold Canyon, AZ 85118