How do you know that?

    ’Tis hard we should be by the men despised,
Yet kept from knowing what would make us prized;
Debarred from knowledge, banished from the schools,
And with the utmost industry bred fools.
(Although referring to women, it seems to ring a bell with all of us!)
Mary, Lady Chudleigh 1656-1710
English poet

The personal development quest probably involves the questions:

  • How do we become happy, or stay happy?
  • How do we flourish?
  • What should we do or be doing?
  • Why are we here?
  • Who or what are we?
  • What is reality?

Any answer or answers to these and other important questions in turn raise the question, 'How do you know that?'

This means that we need to know how we know things and to what degree we can trust the answers and the questions.

It becomes more important when people have turned to powerful people, organisations, or cultures which claim to ask the right questions and give the right answers. We need to be able to ask, 'How do they know this?' and know what sort of answers are going to be satisfactory.

In the well known illusion, the two horizontal lines are equal in length, but one looks longer than the other.

Mueller-Lyer IllusionNow the top line looks longer to me than the bottom one. However, both are really the same length. So what am I seeing? Am I seeing the real lines? Presumably not, because the real lines are the same length and these look different.

So where are the illusory lines? Clearly not where I am looking because the real lines are there. And they are the same length. So I am not looking where the real lines are, but somewhere else. Also I am not looking at the real lines, but at something else. Something has got to be wrong with my perception or my thinking here. Something is deceiving me.
Consider this classic illusion below:
Oldyung.gif (8444 bytes)

Some people quite clearly see a picture of a young woman. Others see a picture of an old woman. Sometimes people quarrel quite vigourously and maintain that their impression is correct. When we get used to the picture we see the two pictures of the old woman and the young one. But others see other things in the picture! Can you see the rat?

Once again, we have the question where is the picture of the young woman, when the picture appears to be that of an old woman? Where is the picture of the old woman when the picture appears to be that of the young woman? What am I looking at, in either case? Clearly not a picture of an old woman or a young woman, and clearly not both! Nor is it a changing picture, because by all other tests, the ink on the drawing does not change. The change occurs in our own minds. And what we see is clearly in our own minds. Now what does this tell us when we perceive 'normally?'

Yet even when we observe common objects, such as bent sticks in the water, and train lines that appear to converge at a distance, we are clearly being deceived. We are even more likely to be deceived when we consider ideas. Can we therefore ever be arrogantly sure of being right about ideas again?

We could claim that we know that the illusions are false because under some conditions we can 'see' accurately. Scientists usually specify very accurately the conditions under which they carried out their experiments. Yet, if the conditions are not the same on further occasions, how can we believe that the results are true. (Does what works in the lab work in the field?) In the same way, are we seeing a straight stick in the water which looks bent. Or are we seeing, outside the water, a bent stick which looks straight? Which is true?

Further, what can we as humans actually know? Can we know about life after death? About reincarnation? Can we know about our real nature? What is knowledge?

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Last modified on: 27-Sep-98.
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