What If We Don’t Know Anything?

What If We Don’t Know Anything?

Mankind has always been bothered by possible uncertainty. It is unbearable to get the answer “I don’t know” when we ask a question. Mankind hates uncertainty so much that he has devoted himself to scientific research to get rid of these uncertainties. Thanks to science, this uncertain life has settled into a much more deterministic (everything is clear) system. However, there is a problem, which is that nothing is still clear.

Neither the way we acquire knowledge removes this uncertainty, nor the way we do science. In this article, we will tell you about two people who believe in the problems of both of our understandings: David Hume and Kurt Gödel.

David Hume and the Causality Problem

David Hume is an 18th-century philosopher and is considered one of the most important people in the history of philosophy. So why is this philosopher so important?

Of course, Hume has many articles and books that he shows the importance of, but the subject of this article will be “Causation Problem” as you can see in the title, or “Causation Problem” in English.

Of course, it is not possible to explain all of his arguments throughout this article, and while it is possible, you probably wouldn’t prefer it. Although he is a pleasant philosopher to read, he is considered to be a heavy philosopher. So let’s start by explaining this problem by simplifying it as much as possible.

Now… We all have developed some ways of acquiring knowledge in our daily life. For example, we all know that when there is a knock on the door, there is someone behind it. Another example is that we all know that we will wake up in the room we sleep in. (Unless someone carried us or we don’t have sleepwalking problems, of course) I’m sure you can find even better examples for yourself.

But the question is, how do we get this information? Hume has a pretty quick and clear answer and that is experience. That is, when the doorbell rings so many times, there is someone behind it, and now we are sure that someone will be behind it when the doorbell rings again because we have never been wrong before or even if we have been wrong, it has happened so few times that it does not break our generalization.

Door Image

But the problem is that experience or experience does not make this “knowledge” strong. In fact, there is no scientific basis to justify our assumptions like this, says Hume. We do not have any data based on the knowledge that the sun rises from the east every day and it will be like this tomorrow. This means that our entire understanding of acquiring knowledge comes from an unreliable foundation, according to Hume. Of course, I have to state that Hume is not against any of these assumptions, but when we go down to the philosophy of the business, everything we call thisknowledge” becomes a habit or custom.

Hume then takes this idea a little further. When we say we know something, we are actually claiming that we have control over it. For example, when we say we know English, we must be able to speak or understand English. However, we do not speak English when we can only say Hello”.

Chinese Room Experiment

Now, to make this example a little clearer, I will introduce you to a thought experiment called Chinese Room Experiment”. Now let’s suppose that we took a Turk named Mete for the Chinese exam. However, Mete does not speak Chinese. We give Mete a Chinese dictionary and take the exam and our cunning Mete gets full marks in this exam using the dictionary. This is where the question comes into play: “Does Mete speak Chinese despite getting full marks in the exam?

Hume’s answer would be no. The reason for this is that although Mete passed the exam, he did not know exactly what he was doing. It has no control over the Chinese. It is never quite unfair. Just because we can do something by chance or in any way does not mean that we know it.

china 2542574 1920

In light of all this, Hume says, we may actually know nothing. Because we don’t know what we are doing even when we put our two fingers together. We want to do it, and somehow we do, but we don’t know the system that does it, or we don’t even have a real knowledge of exactly how we do it. So in summary, we have no real control over any point in our own lives or any part of our body. We’re just people who somehow pass that test every once in a while. We don’t know how we passed the exam, but somehow we succeed. Of course, let’s not forget that Hume enjoys his arguments, but he doesn’t think we should get caught up in them. For him, philosophy is a playbook. After playing enough, you need to know how to close the book and continue with your day.

Kurt Gödel and the Incompleteness Theorem

Let’s bring a slightly more serious philosopher onto the stage. Kurt Gödel is a logician and mathematician. So this man is not an enemy of science. In fact, his theorem, which I will explain to you in a moment, will harm his works more than we do.

Gödel is one of those people who knows that science is there to create a solid foundation for solving problems and enlightening us. According to him, this fundamental is based on the existence of two elements: Consistency and completeness.

What we call consistency is that the result of any experiment or procedure is always the same. For example, the operation “2+2=4”. In our understanding, the answer to this operation will always be 4, or the sum of the interior angles of the triangle will always be 180 degrees. We call this part consistency.

Triangle Image

There is also completeness. This deals with trying all possible possibilities while doing that operation or experiment. It won’t be the right example, but you astute readers will understand me or pretend to be out of courtesy. For example, we say that the sum of the interior angles of a triangle is 180 degrees, but we need to examine all triangles and examine those triangles under all possible events and possibilities, otherwise, this element will be missing.

This is where Gödel comes into play. Gödel’s narrative says: In the beginning, I said that science is a foundation for us. We cannot build without that foundation, and we are vulnerable without it. In order to establish this foundation, we need consistency. Because science cannot afford that the sum of the interior angles of a triangle sometimes turns out to be 180 and sometimes something else. Or we can’t say that 2+2 is not 4 sometimes. But the problem is that sometimes those scientific truths get distorted if we really examine all the possibilities. There are problems such as the water does not boil at 100 degrees in some cases or 2+2 does not always equal 4. That’s exactly why Gödel says that we try to maintain consistency to not break that foundation, and that’s why we get the most consistent result rather than examining every possibility.

The Virtue of Not Knowing

I am aware that all of this may sound chaotic. Our professor, who told us about this for the first time, told us that he was depressed for three weeks after learning about it. But please don’t get depressed. Because it’s actually not a bad thing. On the contrary, in a life where everything is determined, our choices become less valuable, and in a life where we know everything, the moments that will make us happy are shortened and diminished.

In my opinion, Hume and Gödel’s teachings are two important golden teachings for us to experience the virtue of not knowing sometimes. Also, these narratives don’t mean that we don’t really know anything or that science isn’t working.

On the contrary, if science had not chosen the path of consistency, neither the health sector, nor the food sector, nor the industry… Neither would be in its current state.

References and Further Readings

De Pierris , G. , & Friedman , M. (2018, November 4). Kant and Hume on Causality The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Lorkowski, C. M. (n.d.). David Hume: Causation. Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Raatikainen, P. (2020, April 2). Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorems. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

You can access the sources of the images used by clicking on the images.

The proofreading has been done by Asu Pelin Akköse and Mete Esencan.

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Tufan Özdemir

Hello there! I'm Tufan Özdemir. I am a philosophy student at METU. Philosophy has been a big part of my life and my life. For this reason, most of my articles on this site are on philosophy.

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