On Knowledge and Arbitration

Dear Father,

As you recall, the past few letters I have written have dealt with the nature of truth and the state of mind oftentimes required for weak children like myself to even consider such lofty notions. My fixation on the topic of truth is multi-faceted, stemming from my trials with my friend, my desire to find Sophie, and my hopes of seeing you. Truth is tied to all these things in a way nothing else is, for one must know the properties of truth before one can know that he has found it. But even more important, and more fundamental, is the question of knowledge. One has to know what knowing is before one can know whether or not something is true. Of course knowing that you know, and more importantly knowing what you know, is a subject that has plagued many a lover of Sophie, and being of amateur status it seems all but impossible that one such as myself would ever be able, single-handedly, to arrive at satisfactory answers to this question. I already attempted to define truth, and while my definition at the time seemed very satisfactory, my views on things true and things arbitrary has yielded little fruit in my battle with Doubt. The reason for this, as I have now discovered, is that Doubt doesn’t care much for truth; he cares for knowledge.

The definition of knowledge, much like truth, has been heavily contested over the ages, with famous lovers of Sophie knowing that their opponents’ definitions were wrong even though they could not satisfactorily articulate how they knew, or what knowing meant. There is a whole path on the way to Sophia dedicated to the study of knowledge, and a little walk along this road has alerted me to a number of things. The first is that a vast majority of the lovers of Sophie that pitched their tents on this road, including Plato the Most Versatile, are of the opinion, dare I say the knowledge, that things known must be true. Of course for younglings like myself such a statement is very confusing; if one can only know truth when one knows what knowing is, and in order to really know, the thing one claims to know must in fact be true, our dear friend One would inevitably be left in an infinite loop of ignorance. This definition, I have been told, was made in order to distinguish knowledge from opinions or beliefs, things that may not be true but hold the convictions of a number of people. Of course this means that truth is tied to knowledge as tightly as arbitration is tied to opinion, and while this definition satisfies me because it validates my nice arbitration concerning truth and arbitration, it does nothing to advance my quest. This is because, as I have said, Doubt does not quite care for how true something really is. He cares for how convinced you are that it is true, how highly on your personal knowledge scale your little belief ranks.

You see Father, the reason I have not yet been able to shake Doubt’s terrible claws from my shoulder is because I cannot claim to know the answers to the questions he asks me. Now in hindsight I believe I can be forgiven for mistaking this problem with the problem of truth. As you must have surmised from this entire quest, I am obsessed with truth. In order for me to accept something I must confirm it is true, and it is by these means that Doubt has been able to attack time and time again. And while the lovers of Sophie that line the roads of Epistemology would say that placing truth as a fundamental criterion for knowledge is noble, on days such as this, when Doubt seems more powerful than ever, their endorsements do little for me. Unlike a good chunk of your children I not only care a great deal about truth, I also have a very high standard for what can be termed truth. And honestly I am really starting to envy this good chunk of your children.

Take for example people I have met called Abductees. These are children of yours that assert that beings from beyond the stars have seized them and used them as subjects in strange experiments. Now, based on my statements on truth and arbitration, I would conservatively term such statements arbitrations. Barring verification, one cannot really say that these things are true. That, however, matters not to those that have put them forth. They know these things, as much as any man on earth can claim to know anything. We could find out tomorrow that their statements are false, that extra-terrestrial beings have not in fact been collecting our siblings and doing strange things to them, and their knowledge would be rendered hollow. This, however, would not change how much they believed them. At the time before verification they knew that these statements were true. They would have died for such beliefs, confident that they were right. Plato and his ilk would adamantly state that this level of conviction does not change the fact that they do not know, but for one like me, facing the deep voice of Doubt, such adamance is useless. The fact remains that for such people, wrong they may be, Doubt is no problem. He does not hang over their heads and bring their affairs to a grinding halt; he does not colour their every action with the shadow of uncertainty. Whether or not they are wrong, one must admit that they do not have the problem that I have, and on some days I feel as though I would not wish this problem on my worst enemies.

In spite of making this discovery however, my ‘nobility’, or perhaps my lack of ability, did not let me seek an easy out from the ramblings of my once little friend. Unfortunately I have been wearing the Hat of Unverified-Arbitration-is-not-Truth for far too long, and honestly I do not think I am ever going to be able to completely take it off. This state of mind appears to now be a fundamental state of my mind, and I fear only desperation the likes of which I have never felt before would push me to divest myself of this mode of thinking. Even faced with such desperation I get the feeling (no doubt inspired by Doubt) that in time my high standards for truth would soon come sneaking back into my head and I would once again relegate any statement to the land of arbitration. In an odd twist it seems the very thing which caused me to smile in the face of Doubt but a few weeks ago now brings me lower than I have been in quite the while.

My continued foray along the path of Episteme did not do much to help me. I happened upon a book by a more recent lover of Sophie called Bertrand Russell, and reading it has perhaps caused me more pain than my discovery on Doubt’s real desires. Now I know I promised to only focus on the works of the ancients Father, but this book was called “The Problems of Philosophy”; I felt it wise to read it. If there are any problems with my love for Sophia and my quest to find her, would it not be smart to discover them before I go too far?

In this book Russell, in a manner most calm, showed that almost all the little things that one claimed to know were nothing but bald-faced arbitrations. By doing nothing but observing a single table the man laid waste to all that I thought I knew, even issues not yet questioned by my friend. The questions he used to destroy my preconceptions were very similar to those often put forth by Doubt himself, and his major achievement lay not in asking them, but in showing that they had no real answers. He, in effect, took my personal arbitrations and extended them, growing their reach till they covered almost everything, including the very nature of the paper on which I write this letter. So sensible was his rhetoric that even questions Doubt asked me long ago, questions that I found easy to ignore, such as whether or not the sky is blue, returned, suddenly pressing and very important. Allow me to pat myself on the back for reading on, dear Father; I honestly do not know how I continued to indulge Mr Russell even with the rising amplitude of my friend’s voice.

Russell’s brutal attack on knowledge, and by extension truth, was apparently inspired by another fairly contemporary lover of Sophie, a Frenchman by the name Rene Descartes. Reading the means by which he arrived at his conclusion of universal arbitrariness, I think I can say that the Frenchman was perhaps as plagued by Doubt as I am. As legend would have it he locked himself in a room and decided to put to question everything he thought he knew, and the result was what I read before me that day. Nothing is known and so nothing can be known to be true. Everything we speak, however evident, is arbitration. The implications of such a worldview are staggering, Father, but luckily before I could descend into a pit of confusion most supreme Russell revealed the one thing Descartes had discovered to be true. It is a very famous statement, one I’d heard even as a child parading the halls of the House. It read: “I think therefore I am”.

A brief analysis reveals why this statement cannot be doubted. Regardless of how one views one’s existence, regardless of the countless questions and answers that Doubt can bring forth, the fact remains that because one is even thinking these questions, considering these answers, he must exist. One cannot doubt one’s existence. I think, therefore I am. This is the one thing Doubt cannot touch, the one thing Doubt cannot question. Apt, then, that the process by which the Frenchman arrived at this conclusion is often termed the “Method of Systematic Doubt”.

Now discovering that Doubt would never be able to question whether or not I exist is but a small victory. I still have to contend with the fact that everything else, if Russell and Descartes are to be believed, is open to question, that everything everyone says is nothing but arbitration no matter how hard one tries to verify it. Reading Russell’s book so far has not given me much confidence in the rest of my quest for Sophia, and honestly Father I am just about ready to give up. But Platocrates is getting really deep with his description of governments, and Augustine apparently smuggled some metaphysics into his Confessions, and I have been told by a stray lover that Russell has an optimistic message at the end of his book, and so I will continue. Fearing I will never find real truth, but knowing I can always be certain of my own existence, I will continue. Besides, soon I will take off whatever Hat(s) allowed me to reflect so deeply, and I would forget, albeit temporarily, about Russell’s words. I honestly cannot wait, dear Father, to look upon the world without the taint of universal arbitration.

With fatigue,

Your Prodigal Son

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6 thoughts on “On Knowledge and Arbitration

  1. […] that these days I need such wonderful optimism. I am, as you know, yet to fully recover from the damaging blow struck by the more contemporary Russell in his Problems of Philosophy. Platocrates fills me with hope that my quest for Sophia would not be […]

  2. drenn1077 says:

    Some things must be accepted as truth lest reality fade and disappear.

  3. […] what with the buzzings and mutterings of Doubt above my head and the strong and as yet irrefutable words of both Russell and Descartes floating in my […]

  4. […] friend has not left my side since I left yours, and I have already expressed what I feel to be the root cause of his presence in my life. I am certain that the power to know things, truly know them, would rid me of him, and in this […]

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