Knowing What We Know (And What We Don't)

Sunday, September 22, 2019
First Aired: 
Sunday, March 19, 2017

What Is It

It seems like we know many facts about ourselves and the world around us, even if there vastly many others we know that we don’t know. But how do we know if what we believe to be true is really knowledge? Can our beliefs be both justified and true, yet still not count as genuine knowledge? If so, then how much confidence should we really have in our beliefs? Is there a way to strike a balance between paralyzing skepticism, on the one hand, and dogmatic conviction, on the other? John and Ken know that their guest is Baron Reed from Northwestern University, co-editor of Skepticism: From Antiquity to the Present.

Part of a six-part series on Intellectual Humility.

Listening Notes

How can we avoid dogmatic arrogance but also avoid the paralysis of doubt? We ought to avoid cutting ourselves from opposing viewpoints, but at the same time we ought to avoid becoming susceptible to invalid viewpoints -- like those of climate denial. How can we balance skepticism and dogmatism?

John and Ken are joined by Baron Reed, associate professor of philosophy at Northwestern University and author of The Long Road to Skepticism. Baron discusses his early fascination with David Hume’s skepticism and how his line of questioning radically destabilized people’s worldviews and sense of reality. Baron also argues that there are varying kinds of knowledge and how competence in one kind does not transfer onto others. 

Ken brings into the conversation recent psychological research that appears to demonstrate that the human brain is not wired to accept new points of view. Baron, however, responds that this impulsive nature to close our minds can be overcome, especially if one pays attention to instances when we have to rethink our positions. 

Baron further argues that knowledge need not be defined in terms of absolute certainty, as you could claim to have knowledge even if there is potential room for doubt. This is important when it comes to issues that are complicated by “merchants of doubt,” like organizations that deny climate change or the harmful effects of smoking. In these cases, it’s not always 100% provable without any sliver of doubt, but that does not mean that the positive claims put forward are valid. 

In this domain, philosophy can be understood as one of the most practical fields of study, as it trains individuals to come up with the best possible argument for a given point of view and to thoroughly address an opposing argument in its most convincing form. Philosophy in this sense is less an accumulation of doctrines and more an attitude and orientation of questioning toward the world.


Comments (6)

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Friday, September 6, 2019 -- 8:08 AM

This entire subject reminds

This entire subject reminds me of the now-famous Donald Rumsfeld explanation of 'known knowns'; 'unknown knowns'; 'unknown unknowns' and the rest of it. By the time he completed his tirade about all of this, I was pretty certain his analysis was bogus---an attempt to sound learned, while making the waters ever-muddier on the subject of intelligence, counter-intelligence, and counter-counter intelligence (sort of a quasi-serious take on the old Spy vs. Spy from Bill Gaines' Mad Magazine). Before and after Hume, philosophers have cautioned us to be clear about what we know, as opposed to believing we know a thing, while lacking sufficient and incontrovertible proof. This, unfortunately, illustrates the dilemmas faced by decision makers when designing a horse (see the earlier PT post, regarding how difficult it is to get decisions made). Public intellectuals receive countless criticisms for espousing ideas and supporting causes that somehow fail to meet the litmus test(s) for veracity, making me happy not to be in their unenviable shoes. Research on brain wiring aside, I like to challenge myself by 'jootsing' those things which are difficult to 'wrap-one's-mind around'. With this 'jumping outside the space' approach, I avoid (as much as possible) preconceptions and other forms of bias, allowing me to give consideration to improbable or unlikely ideas and outcomes. I'm indebted to Doug and Dan for this epiphany. An open mind is a terrible thing to eschew.

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Friday, September 6, 2019 -- 8:13 AM

Sorry for the confusion (if

Sorry for the confusion (if there was any...). The third part of the 'knowns' portion of the first sentence in my comment should have read: 'unknown unknowns'. I have edited that accordingly. It didn't look right in the first place, but I was in a hurry---not usual for me...

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Friday, September 20, 2019 -- 12:17 PM

I looked at the 2017 post on

I looked at the 2017 post on this subject and tried to tie all of it together, particularly the piece on intellectual humility. Reading Wilfrid Sellars for the past week of so helped me some because of his updated take on a remark originally made by Kant (the likes of which escapes me right now). Anyway, Sellars said: "Philosophy, without the history of philosophy, if not empty or blind, is at least DUMB" (emphasis mine). Your earlier post, regarding disregarding 'the Canons', led me to the response I gave on that one, which, was more-or-less, the same thing Wilf said. Intellectual humility is another matter, and one which has plagued philosophers since at least the Enlightenment. They were, as you know, prone to refer to common folk as 'the vulgar'because of their decided lack of intellect. This, of course, would have not been endearing (putting it mildly).

In another sense, Kant's questions come back to mind: What can I know?; What must I do?; What may I expect?; What is man?. Herr Kant clearly wanted to know all he could about everything he could know about. He was not necessarily being intellectually arrogant, but neither was he humble. But, if we consider that last question we must wonder how it fits with the first three? If Kant could get good answers to those, the final question would have answered itself. And so, perhaps intellectual humility is, itself, a conundrum?...If we know more than, as a practical matter,we need to know, are we over-stepping our dance-card? Intellectual humility may come with knowing when to keep one's mouth shut.

RepoMan05's picture


Friday, September 27, 2019 -- 8:32 AM

You cant know what you dont

You cant know what you dont know. Not usually, anyway.

And is there really any way to say anything at all abd not insult intelligence? I don't think there is. Every single word is an argumentum at populum fallacy all to themselves.

People just have to accept that being offended isnt a right.

Government cant and shouldnt stop anyone from being offended.

Remember smokey bear.

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Tuesday, April 25, 2023 -- 8:55 AM

While looking through past PT

While looking through past PT episodes today, I noticed this topic is still alive. Just a few notes here. I have known few people who were humble about anything, let alone their own intellect. I think the notion of intellectual humility is mostly about keeping up appearances. As the Who sang it, years ago, it is an eminence front---a put-on. Appearing humble gains a modicum of respect. And, Socrates still committed voluntary suicide. Intellectuals do not earn respect among their peers by being humble, although some people would argue contrariwise---to keep up appearances.

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