Why do we Know something?


Knowledge is interesting. But what is it, exactly? What does it mean to say you know something? Plato defined it as being justified true belief, but is it? Take Bertrand Russel’s famous thought experiment: the ‘stopped clock case’, for example. Alice looks at a clock and says it is two o’clock. Well, because the clock does indeed confirm that it is two o’clock, it seems justified; and because it is, in reality, two o’clock, it also seems a true belief. She could therefore be said to know that it is two o’clock… But, unknown to Alice, the clock had actually stopped working exactly 12 hours previously, so did she know that it was two o’clock? Or was it a fortuitous guess and not knowledge?

All this is a little out of my comfort zone to say the least, so I’m not even going to attempt straying into such philosophical realms as the ‘Gettier Problem’ (whether something that happens to be true but is believed, as with Alice, for incorrect or flawed reasons should be counted as knowledge). It is truly thought-provoking, though, isn’t it?

But Knowledge is not just a list of facts that happen to be true –whatever truth is- nor a compilation of disparate evidentiary items. It is not only an encyclopedia, it is a diary as well: the story of why it exists. There is often a purpose to it –or at least in its acquisition there may have been a reason, even if you stumbled upon it by accident.

In other words, there is another way of approaching the concept of knowledge other than how we know something to be true –the Scientific Method, for example- and that is why we know it. And I don’t mean to stir the lid of Pandora’s box with the ‘why question’, nor to intimate some sort of heterodox Creationist linkage, but merely to introduce something that I learned from a patient a few years back -a professor of philosophy at one of the local universities.

Nancy was a thin, forty-seven year old woman who had been sent to me for a recent episode of irregular menstrual bleeding. She was otherwise healthy and somewhat embarrassed at having to see me for something her mother and aunt had managed to work through without having to seek medical advice. Her family doctor had ordered an ultrasound of the pelvis and it had not revealed anything suspicious. In fact it had stated that no abnormalities had been seen to explain the bleeding.

I suggested it would be a good idea to sample the uterine cells with an office endometrial biopsy as a final reassurance that nothing had been missed. But I could see that she was uncomfortable with the idea.

“What are you hoping an endometrial biopsy will find, doctor?” she said suspiciously.

“Actually, I’m hoping to find nothing,” I said in my best, confident voice. “The ultrasound didn’t see anything to worry about…”

An eyebrow slowly crawled up one side of her forehead. “I realize that; my GP showed me the result.” The other eyebrow shot up to join its sister. “So… Why would you want to do a biopsy?”

I get asked this a lot. “Well, the ultrasound is not a microscope. It can’t tell anything about the type of cells that are in there.” She still looked unconvinced, I have to say, so I pulled out another of my usual analogies. “I suppose it’s something like trying to make a diagnosis from a shadow. You can guess a person’s height and perhaps her weight from her shadow, but even if you could tell she had long hair, you would have no idea of its colour. Nor would you know anything about her heart.”

Nancy was quiet for a moment, obviously thinking it through. I could tell from her face that she thought it was a rather clumsy explanation -not well conceived, and not terribly illustrative of her problem. “So,” she finally said, looking up at the ceiling for help, “The ultrasound is normal, the blood tests my GP did suggest I’m in the menopausal transition now, the abnormal bleeding only occurred in one menstrual cycle a few months ago, and I’ve been doing well since then…” She dropped her eyes onto my face and left them hovering there for a moment as she shook her head. “Tell me again why you think a biopsy would be a good idea.”

I have to admit that when she put it like that I had second thoughts, but nevertheless I pushed on, regardless. Was I just trying to save face, or was there truly a principle at stake? “Well… clearly there are different ways of approaching your bleeding… But if we do the biopsy, and it is normal, then at the very least we will have a baseline that reassures us that if it happens again in the near future, we can probably assume the cells are still normal…”

Nancy was good; she could read the hesitation in my voice. She smiled gracefully, but it was a polite smile. “Wouldn’t it make equally good sense to wait and see if it starts to happen more frequently and then do the biopsy?”

She had me. “Yes, I suppose that is an equally acceptable option.”

She sat back in her chair, crossed her legs, folded her arms across her chest and stared at me –not unkindly, not aggressively, but curiously, like a mother might watch a mischievous child. “I won’t ask you how you came to that conclusion, or how you know that a biopsy might be justified. Those are all fairly standard medical teachings, as I understand…” Her face wrinkled in concern. “But I’d be curious as to why you know that.”

I returned her stare. Why I knew that? Why does anybody know something? Because they read it, or were taught it, or figured it out… Why indeed?

“We all have options in our learning,” she continued. “There are many opinions to which we are exposed, rival paradigms, competing theories. And they all promise success; they all answer the questions differently. Like a hundred people crossing a single bridge, it’s not the same bridge for any of them. It’s a hundred bridges…”

Her face softened, like a teacher that realizes she has confused her pupil. “From all that reality has to offer, we have to decide what to privilege. There are just too many routes to the truth to take them all. We have to choose…

“But why do we choose one view, one approach instead of another? That’s what I’m asking.” She sighed, as if even the question, let alone the answer to it, was hopeless. “Why do you know one thing and not something else?”

Her question still troubles me. I had no answer for her then; nor do I now. I still wallow in the permutations and combinations of perpectives I confront daily and wonder how I manage to choose my direction without getting lost. Maybe it’s a confirmation bias: I have come to believe in the correctness of a particular viewpoint over the years and so only consider the evidence that confirms it. The diagnosis that points that way. And if the results don’t justify the approach? Well, there’s always rationalization to light the path I’ve chosen.

But do I really know why I know what I do, believe what I believe, think what I think? No, not so far… and yet the fact that I’m even aware of the discrepancy, and see the signs to other roads, is a good start isn’t it? As Marcel Proust wrote: The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new lands but seeing with new eyes.

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