I find it profoundly mysterious how we know anything. I mean that literally.

Some types of knowledge are obviously mystifying. But even the knowledge which seems most obvious and unproblematic, I think really is problematic. The fact that certain things are, to us, obviously true, obscures the fact that we have utterly no idea how these things are obvious to us.

Start with the most clearly-mysterious knowledge:

How do we know that certain things are right, and other wrong? –that some things are good and other bad? Of course some philosophers, seeing this apparent mystery, and seeing how ‘values’ do not seem to fit into a purely-physical world, deny that there really are real, objective values. They are “error theorists.” It’s all an illusion. Nothing is really good or bad at all. There is just how we happen to react to things. We erroneously think these things really are good, or bad. But there’s no such thing.

Most of us, I hope, don’t buy that. Torturing children for the fun of it really is bad and wrong. It’s not just that we don’t like it. I certainly find a person who thinks otherwise scary. I hope they persuade few others of this perspective!

But assuming that certain things really are good, and others bad, how do we know this? Goodness and badness are hardly things we can detect with our senses; they don’t have a colour, or texture, or smell, or taste, or pitch. Of course, various things look, taste, smell, sound, or feel, good, or bad, to us. But that’s another thing. It is not our senses that tell us that torturing children for the fun of it is wrong. So how do we know?

But even the most obvious knowledge is similarly mysterious. Consider our knowledge that 2+2=4. How do we know this? I know it is obvious. But how is it obvious to us? I can explain that ‘2’ refers to this many, and ‘4’ to this many, and explain what addition is, and so, obviously, 2+2 must be 4. Right. This is obvious. But how is all this obvious to us? How is it obvious that, given that explanation, 2+2 must be 4?

The most popular answer among philosophers has been that such knowledge is ‘a priori’, and that all such knowledge is of ‘analytic’ truths. This knowledge does not come from (it is ‘prior to’) experience, but comes from our seeing how the concepts involved are related to each other. We see that these things are “true by definition.”

This may help, but I don’t see that it really answers my question anyway. Take the most obvious example I can think of: All bachelors are, “by definition,” unmarried—because being unmarried is part of the meaning of ‘bachelor.’ Alright. Yes. But how is it that we can see, then, that all bachelors must be unmarried? We see that ‘unmarried’ is part of the meaning of ‘bachelor.’ So? How does that tell us that all bachelors are unmarried?

You will, of course, say, “But that is obvious! If ‘unmarried’ is part of the meaning of ‘bachelor,’ then it has to be true that ‘all bachelors are unmarried!’” Yes. That is obvious. But how? That ‘unmarried’ is part of the meaning of ‘bachelor’ is one thing. That all bachelors must be unmarried is another. I “see” that if the first is true, the second must be true as well. But how? That is the point. My mind “sees” these things. But that in no way tells me how it sees these things.

The term ‘see’ here is no accident. There is an explanation going back to the ancient Greeks that our mind “sees” such truths because things, and our minds, are “illuminated” by an ultimate cause. Plato thought it was the ultimate “form”—the Form of the Good—that illuminates everything and upon which all true knowledge depends. Indeed, even the very being of everything depends upon this one ultimate cause.

Philosophers who have believed in an ultimate God—personal, or impersonal—have naturally thought of this God as the ultimate source of our ability to know. The apostle Paul wrote of a moral “law” and of people “do[ing] by nature things required by the law . . . .  They show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts sometimes accusing them and at other times even defending them.” (Romans 2:14-15) So God gave us this ability to “see” right from wrong—as well as the ability to “see” anything else.

I think this helps. At least it gives me more confidence that my and our “knowledge” isn’t all just delusion. But there still remains the question, ‘How, exactly, does this ability work?’ If God gave us this ability, it strikes me as unlikely that it consists in God’s directly conveying knowledge to us. There must be a mechanism. But what is it? I have little idea. I’m also skeptical that any amount of neuroscience will help—much anyway.

-February 2017