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How Do You Know?

An expanded version of this page appears in my book
"New Skins for Old Wine"



The plan of this essay is as follows. I first address the fundamental concepts relating to knowledge: truth, reality and certainty; I then discuss logic, inference, deduction, induction, proof and disproof. After denying the validity of induction I present the Scientific Method as understood and clarified by Popper. In doing so, I highlight the role played by "epistemological hysteresis" or faith in this process. I then reflect on how all this relates to Plato's epistemology and then relate the theoretical framework that has been developed to ethics and education.


One of the distinguishing marks of human beings is inquisitiveness, the appetite to learn: to acquire knowledge and expertise. This is especially characteristic of children, who know that they have much to learn and generally enjoy doing so. It is less characteristic of adults, who tend to believe either that they "know it all" already or that they will never get to grips with some topic and so give up the struggle to learn and acquiesce in their ignorance. In the worst case, the attitude will be adopted that because something is perceived to be beyond their understanding it isn't important or "relevant to their lives".

The importance of knowledge

Plato taught that almost every positive characteristic of a human being could be identified as a form of knowledge or expertise. Hence for a Platonist, epistemology: the study of what knowledge is, how it can be identified and distinguished from what might masquerade as knowledge and how it might be acquired is of acute importance.

Two types of Knowledge

Knowledge comes in two species. The first is theoretical knowledge and the second is practical. Theoretical knowledge gives an understanding of what is happening in the environment of the knower. It enables him or her to decide, as a subject, what is beneficial or harmful and helps the subject to set objectives that - if met - will result in them flourishing. Theoretical knowledge also results in pure intellectual pleasure. It is not necessary for it to have any bearing on life for it to be worthwhile in itself. The obtaining of such knowledge is itself a game, and can be enjoyed for its own sake, just as can any other game. Practical knowledge - or expertise - gives an understanding of how to accomplissh objectives that have been set. It informs the activity of the knower as an agent, enabling him or her to act effectively and with minimum cost, risk and effort. Practical knowledge generally requires a basis of theoretical knowledge or the environment, but additionally, it requires self-knowledge: an understanding of the knower's potentiality, talents and limitations.

Conventionally, knowledge has been linked with the notions of "reality", "certainty" and "truth": to know something is to know that it is certainly true and real. Before proceeding further, it is necessary to consider these three notions.

What is truth?

Any sufficiently complicated living system will have internal states that map onto and so represent aspects of the present and past environment of the life-form. These states can be identified as impressions and memories, they are ideas. Whether these states exist as solitonic waves or within a neural net is of little importance. In each case, some representation of external reality exists in the internal states of the system. Truth can be understood as "correspondence with reality" [Aristotle, A. Tarski, K.R. Popper]. The correlation of an idea with the state of the environment that is supposed to correspond to it is its verisimilitude or degree of truth. Of course quantifying such a metric is a difficult matter!

What is reality?

This is a difficult question. As an "Objective Realist", I want to say that reality is the object of our knowledge. It is the environment in which we exist and which would itself continue to exist even should all human beings - and indeed all knowing or conscious beings - cease to exist. According to the late professor Richard Feynman, reality has the habit of kicking back when we kick it. It doesn't let us have our own way, but rather insists on having its way with us. This reality is constituted from what we call "things" which exist in "space-time". Space-time is, in fact, just "when and where things can be". I accept that this answer is no more satisfactory than the answer I elsewhere try to give to the question "what is consciousness?" I rather suspect that the reason it is difficult to answer either question is pretty much the same.

Of course, there are others: "Subjectivist Relativists", who discount the idea of objective reality and insist that reality is a construct of the conscious individual: a theory imposed upon their experience, of their own volition, in order to bring pattern to what would otherwise be chaotic sense data. Such people do not distinguish between "reality" and "truth" and proceed to conclude - rightly in their own terms - that no one account of "reality" is to be preferred over any other. As "reality" is no more than a personal construct, each person is entitled to their "own truth" and no-one else has any basis on which to dispute its validity.

In my view, this whole outlook is based on a confusion between the ideas of "truth" and "reality". In the end it is indistinguishable from "pure idealism" which makes reality into a world created by the imagination of the observer. Moreover, it begs the questions:

What is certainty?

Certainty is a self-referential concept. One would be certain of something if one knew that one knew it. Either it is a redundant concept: any knowledge necessarily involving certainty, or it is unattainable: involving an infinite regression of knowing. Cardinal Newman introduced the idea of "certitude" to try and nuance this problem. He suggested that one could gain sufficient "certitude for action" by the accumulation of evidences, none of which was sufficient to justify certainty ["Grammar of Assent" (1870)]. This brings us immediately to one of the central problems of epistemology: that of induction.

Proof and Disproof

Conventionally, two means or procedures are posited by which knowledge may be obtained, these are named induction and deduction.

Deduction depends on the acceptance of some system of logical inference, by which the truth or falsehood of one proposition "the conclusion" can be determined from the truth or falsehood of (an) other proposition(s) "the premise(s)" on which it is
supposed to depend. Many such systems have been invented by ingenious philosophers and mathematicians, but the one that seems to be "true" of the world in which we live is the simple deductive system first codified by Aristotle.

Classical Inference

In this system, called "Classical Inference", disproof is almost as important as proof, and can often be easier to obtain. Typically, a proposition can be disproved just by showing that it involves a contradiction. In which case it is said to be is self-inconsistent or incoherent and the proposition is said to have been "reduced to an absurdity" (reductio ab absurdem). The importance of disproof lies in the fact that it gives rise to a means of proof. This is because, according to Aristotle's "Law of the Excluded Middle", if some proposition can be shown to be false, then the exact inverse of this proposition must be true. Hence if it is absurd to say "such and such" then "not such and such" must be true.

Note that I would say that while I accept and always attempt to employ Classical Inference because I believe that it is valid and applicable to the real world. I would not say that it was "true". This is because "truth" is the (degree of) correspondence between an idea in someone's mind and some aspect of objective reality. Now, the laws of Classical Inference are not "things" that exist "out there". There is no Form of "The Law of the Excluded Middle", for example! Hence although my conviction that Classical Inference is trustworthy and applicable is intuitive, I would not describe it as "self-evident knowledge", as I do not think that it is any kind of knowledge, but rather a "manner of proceeding" that I have adopted and will continue to employ until I am forced to reject it in favour of some other methodology.

The liar paradox

The liar paradox is central to the problem of truth, for it sets out to show that the very concept of truth is self-contradictory. In brief it asks one to consider a man who says: "This statement is a lie".

Now, it would seem that:

This paradox can be resolved in a number of ways. The most obvious is to allow of a third option besides "true" and "false", namely "meaningless". This is supposed to be the logical condition which characterizes propositions which are formed correctly according to the rules of syntax and grammar and yet are self-contradictory. The main problem with this proposal is that it makes it difficult to make use of Aristotle's Law of the Excluded Middle: for as we have seen, the fact that the first premise was shown to be false did not imply that its negation was true.

I prefer to take the following view. An idea is true if it corresponds to some thing that is objectively real. It is false if it claims such a corresponence but in fact does not so correspond. The statement "This statement is a lie" never makes reference to any thing, but only to itself. All that can truly be said of the statement is that it is a correctly formed statement. It does not have an  truth value on its own account. Moreover, it can not attain one spontaneously, but would somehow have to be given one, and there is no means by which this can occur. The statement exists in a universe of its own. Hence, the statement cannot possibly be true, simply because it is never established in relationship to the Cosmos, which relationship alone could validate it. The statement is merely "a noise". Similarly, the statement is not "a lie" because a lie has to refer (falsely) to some supposed real thing, but this statement does not do so.

In brief, the statement is false (i.e. not true: it does not correspond to any real thing) and yet it is not a lie (because it does not wrongly correspond to - or contradict - any real thing).

The paradox can be reformulated in an attempt to frustrate this analysis as follows: consider a man who says "This statement is false." However, the flaw in the paradox now becomes apparent. What can is mean to say that the statement "is false" when it isn't a statement about any real thing? From the point of view of the value to be attributed to the statement, it is clearly "false" in the sense that it does not refer to any real thing, yet this does not then justify us allowing its self-referential claim.

The propagation of truth

The excellence of this system is simple. This means that truth can be propagated from a small set of premises to a wide range of conclusions. This is a central activity of mathematics, which is basically the exploration of the consequences that result when some set of premises - generally known as axioms - is postulated as being true. In mathematics, this process is relatively unproblematic. The axioms are true just because they are axioms. Manifestly, the idea of the axiom corresponds precisely to the reality of the axiom, simply because the reality of the axiom is nothing other than the idea of the axiom! The only difficulty is that it can be shown that some propositions can be unknowably true. Whereas they follow from the adoption of the axioms, their truth can in no way be established by any process of deduction. These propositions are rather like offshore islands, with no bridge or causeway or ferry service linking them to the mainland of truth. This result is known as Goedel's Theorem.

The origin of truth

In the physical world, deduction is up against a formidable problem. Where can it start from? How does one come by true premises, in the first place; from which true conclusions may be deduced? Moreover, how can one know that the very process of Classical Inference is valid? Conventionally, these questions are answered by two additional proposals.
  1. Some premises are self-evidently true and
  2. Other premises can be established as true on the evidence of experience by the process called "induction".
Traditionally, the Church has assumed that still a third category of truths are only attainable with the exercise of faith. All of this strikes me as arbitrary.
Self-evident nonsense
The idea of "self-evident truth" is a dangerous conceit, according to which the human intellect is supposed to be able to grasp that certain propositions are absolutely necessary. Now, in the history of human endeavour, whenever it has been thought that something is "just obvious" it has later transpired that this thing was in fact false. The Galileo story is instructive in this regard. Moreover, such an entrenched view has typically resulted in the stagnation of th(os)e area(s) of knowledge to which it primarily related.

Those truths which may seem to be self-evident are, I suspect, nothing more than axiomatic syllogisms. "One plus One equals Two" is true, by definition, within a simple system of abstract integer arithmetic. It does not follow that it is true in the sense of "corresponding with physical reality". Indeed, as far as the physical universe is concerned: the more that "plus" signifies anything, the less accurate is the equation. The interactions between the first "One" and the second "One" (think of the masses of two electrons) tend to affect the value of the "Two". Much of physics is concerned with accounting for such interactions, on the basis that they can be analysed in terms of other delineable and non-interacting things. So: masses do not add because of forces; velocities do not add because of relativity; volumes of liquids do not add because of surface tension, and so on. The root problem here is that while on the one hand the only real numbers are the positive integers (no-one could ever see "five thirds of a Zebra") on the other hand the only things that are properly characterized by the positive integers are particles, and these are exactly the kind of things for which association implies significant interaction.

Inductive falsehood
Popper has shown that "inductive reasoning" is invalid, on a number of grounds [The Logic of Scientific Discovery (1934, 1968)]. In brief, Popper points out that no matter how much clear and incontestable evidence may exist that is consistent with (and supports) some proposition, as soon as a single piece of clear incontestable evidence is discovered that is inconsistent with that proposition, then that proposition is immediately known to be false. Hence, it cannot be that "the more evidence there is in favour of some proposition, the more certain we can be that it is true." In practice, he asserts, induction is never used in developing models. It is often thought to be used in this way, because it is easy to confuse it with the method that is actually used, namely that of "Conjectures and Refutations" [Popper (1963)]. This process is described and discussed below.

Cause for epistemological despair?

We see the world in terms of edges of objects because our retinas and optical cortex are preconfigured to detect and emphasize (straight) lines. We perceive faces in arrangements of shapes because we are especially interested in faces and pre-disposed to see them even where they do not objectively exist. Similarly, we hear rhythms because our ears hunt them out in preference to random sequences. We interpret the words and actions of others in terms of our past experiences: projecting motivations and extrapolating outcomes. When we decide to act, our decisions are flavoured by the relative importance and detailed significance we give to various factors: our personal security; the pleasure or pain anticipated; the long term effect on inter-personal relationships and so on. This is where our choices are either well ordered or disordered. Our decisions are also affected by other mental characteristics or habits (vices and virtues) like impetuosity, compassion, complacency, trust, cynicism or credulity. As we act, our actions are limited by our capabilities: for example, our propensity to fumble; stutter; forget a minus sign, guess, imagine and inspire.

How then does one ever learn anything? How can one grasp what is true? What use are physics experiments, if the results obtained are themselves always subject to interpretation and diverse resolution? The answer is simple. One should not expect immediate and absolute answers on call. "Human knowledge" is never absolute "episteme": either an immediate knowledge of a thing by intuitive apprehension of its inner form, or certainty obtained by remorseless induction. It is always and inevitably subjective and provisional, obtained by a process of continual approximation. The best kind of knowledge that anyone can ever have of anything is confused at least by one's one subjective assumptions and prejudices. This kind of knowledge is called "doxa" in Greek and "belief" in English. Sometimes, one's belief can, with some good accuracy, correspond to objective reality. In such a case, the belief is "true", and the Greek adjective "ortho-doxa" is appropriate.

Conjecture and Refutation

Popper argues that induction is un-necessary. The way in which we gain knowledge of the real world is via "conjecture and refutation", as first demonstrated by Plato in "Meno". When confronted with an open question, the researcher tends to guess an answer: based on intuition, hope and prejudice (as it may be - the origin of the hypothesis really doesn't matter!) and then checks, using deductive reasoning, whether the conjecture is consistent with experimental observations and other propositions currently accepted as true.

The Scientific Method

The process just outlined is roughly what is meant by "The Scientific Method". It should be noted that it can never unequivocally establish truth. This for two reasons. First, the interpretation of any observation is richly influenced by the theoretical perspective and expectations of the observer. Hence the significance of some fact may be either over- or under-rated, or even entirely misconstrued. Second, no number of confirmations of a theory can amount to its certain proof. There might always be some as yet unexplored or even unenvisaged circumstance in which it fails.


In order to give a break from the relentless presentation of my own viewpoint, I next comment on parts of a correspondence that I received a while back.
"Life is big. It is really big! It is so big and complex that we can not hope to comprehend it all in our lifetimes, or even in the lifetime of the entire human race. We are lucky if we can comprehend even a small amount of it, enough to survive and even thrive. Because life is so big the first thing that we do as individuals, societies and a species is hack out a working model that will allow us to function on a day-to-day basis. As our needs become more complex so do the models we make to meet our needs."
I largely agree with these comments. However, I take exception to the negative evaluation associated with making models. The process is described as "hacking out"; the epithet "working" is added to the word "model" and the purpose of a "model" is said to be "to allow us to function on a day-to-day basis" and "to meet our needs". As a Physicist, I want to be more positive. First, I would distinguish between: Theories are always inadequate, but as we progressively refine them by "conjecture and refutation" we can hope that they will tend towards the limit that is "episteme". The development of theory should always be reckoned as an activity that is aspirational after truth (Episteme) rather than just expedient and "make do". There is no need to be negative regarding this process, even if it should prove to be a Never Ending Quest!

Moreover, I am unhappy with the simplistically Utilitarian slant of the paragraph. Theories are not only changed in response to an increase in the complexity of our functional needs, but also in response to the growth in our understanding of the world and as our experience widens and deepens. Obviously, these processes are associated with each other: science and technology go hand-in-hand; but General Relativity did not in any way arise "as our needs became more complex", neither was it proposed in order "to meet our needs".

"Models are abstractions of the human mind. They exist as a tool used by humans beings to impose order on our environment so that we can function on a daily basis as individuals, and as cultures and societies. Our models reflect how we understand ourselves and our world."
A "subjectivist-relativist" spin is introduced here. This view tries to turn epistemology into anthropology. It is deeply damaging to any notion of truth. Models - still less theories - do not "impose order on our environment". Rather they enable us to make predictions about it. Our environment doesn't change or cease to be disordered just because we invent some model or other. Our models and theories do not reflect but rather precisely are our understanding of ourselves and our world. Our models and theories reflect (imperfectly) what is objectively the case about ourselves and our world.
"So far, so good. The next question, or rather set of questions is how are our models developed, how closely do they reflect reality and how often are they updated? Models, and by extension, traditions are not bad per se if they are developed and maintained in a responsible manor."
All models and (human) traditions are provisional, by the very nature of what they are. However, the Apostolic Ecclesial Tradition (The Gospel) is not. No more is Physical Reality. Of course, our understanding of Apostolic Tradition develops in a similar manner to our understanding of Physical Reality: but The Gospel Tradition and Physical Reality are both objective, not culturally based subjective constructs.
"They are necessary if we are to be a cohesive body and not fall into anarchy and, ultimately, become extinct. However, they are bad and they do damage when they are maintained in spite of contradictory evidence. And that seems to be the case with certain Church doctrines."
Again, the justification for a model (or tradition) is given in terms of expedience. This is true as far as it goes, but is inadequate. Manifestly, if a theory is wrong it will give rise to wrong predictions and will mislead its adherents. This may result in their extinction; but even if it doesn't they will not prosper in the way that they would if they were better informed about the world in which they lived. Moreover, many of the deepest theories of Physics are of no practical use and have no impact on the survival prospects of the human race. In the terms of this paragraph they are not "necessary"! Needless to say I deplore such a negative judgement of physics theories such as QED, QCD, GR etc. etc.

Finally, I argue below that it is generally wise to maintain an established theory for a while "in spite of contradictory evidence".


Certain dynamic processes internal to a complex organism may represent analogues of external systems. These will be more than just memories or impressions of observables, but amount to theoretical models of reality. They will yield predictions of  future phenomena. A theory that makes many accurate and pertinent predictions is worthwhile: it may enable the life-form that has developed it to anticipate external threats and opportunities and so "live long and prosper". It is a "correct belief": "ortho-doxa". A theoretical model that makes a single wrong prediction, while perhaps being still of some (great) utility (e.g. Newtonian Mechanics or Gravity) is "falsified" and must be replaced, according to the process of "conjecture and refutation".

While it is much easier to falsify a theory than prove it; even disproof is problematic. What constitutes falsification is itself theory laden. What may at first appear to be a falsification of some theory may in fact turn out to be the disproof not of the theory that was meant to be under test, but of some piece of "back-ground knowledge" that was presumed to be true and was not meant to be under investigation at the time. Discerning the significance of experimental evidence is an art form in its own right!

It is commonly thought that Science deals with certainties, whereas Religion deals with matters of sentiment. Nothing could be further from the truth! Natural Science never deals with proofs, but only with disproofs. No scientific proposition is definitive or certain. All are provisional and subject to reformulation if not rejection, with the passing of time. Even the most deeply held principles of Physics, such as relativity, are subject to continual re-evaluation, doubt and dispute: and rightly so. It is by their being held to account against experiment that they are tested and exonerated: or not! As a theory successfully withstands more and more provocative and stringent tests, then one's confidence (faith or belief) that it is trustworthy (note the religious language) builds up. Once a certain (arbitrary) point is reached, one tends to dispense with a previous or competing theory which is known to be inadequate and to adopt the successful theory as part of one's paradigm of nature. This sudden transition (paradigm shift or "leap of faith") is an example of a "catastrophe": a discontinuous response to a slow build-up of data.

Hysteresis in Physics

Hysteresis is a phenomenon generally encountered in physics and mathematics. An every-day example is the electrical light switch. This has two states "on" and "off" and it is possible to switch between these two states by pressing a small lever. The lever resists small forces, however. An internal spring is arranged in such a way that the lever is held in place until a fairly large force is applied. In order to grasp the idea of hysteresis, first consider the process of  "turning on" a switch which is originally "off". Note that:
  1. At first; when no force was being applied, the switch was in its "off state":

  2. but now; when no force is being applied, the switch is in its "on state".
  3. Whereas generally

  4. even moderate changes in stimulus cause no change in the state of the system,
    a very small change causes a dramatic (technically a "catastrophic") change in the state of the system.
    This means that there is a discontinuity in the relationship between steady-state input and steady-state output.
  5. This behaviour is characteristic of systems with "positive feedback".

  6. These are systems which "prejudice themselves" by taking part of their input from their output.
    This inclines them to favour (and so tend to remain in) whichever state they are currently in.
    A large contrary stimulus is required in order to overcome this bias.
    In electronics, the simplest such circuit is the Schmitt Trigger.
  7. It is not necessary that the output of such a system is strictly binary.

  8. Some systems behave like a light switch soaked in "goo".
    For these, the catastrophic change is smoothed out; and no discontinuity occurs.
    The applied force must always be changed (a little) in order to change the angle of the lever a little.
    The lever is stable in any orientation.
    The most familiar example of this kind of behaviour is the magnetization of an iron core by a solenoid.
  9. In all cases, "hysterical" behaviour is characterized by a graph with a "loop" in it.
Epistemological Hysteresis
Epistemological hysteresis is a result of memory. Memory makes present and allows to be taken into account past experience and evidence, so that a truly balanced judgement can be made. Indeed physical systems that exhibit hysteresis are sometimes described as having a memory and may be used to implement memory functions in computers.

Other aspects or names for "epistemological hysteresis" are "conviction", "loyalty" and "faith". These all speak of the maintenance of some stance against present (short-term) difficulties or positive incentives to change that stance. The man with little hysteresis in his decision making is either ignorant (and so has no past information to justify any stance) or foolish (and so unwilling to grant any significance to evidence of any kind: past or present). The fool will be a "vicar of Bray" personality: willing to go along with the latest fad, wishing only to please either those in authority over him or the latest person that he happens to meet. He has a backbone of straw and will be utterly unreliable and faithless.

Faith and Certainty
Religious faith is no different in species than any other kind of belief. It is a compelling opinion concerning matters that are sufficiently important and which is held with sufficient conviction as to motivate action. At the heart of faith there must be both doubt (for else faith becomes fanaticism) and love (for else faith becomes faint-hearted). Though belief is never absolute certainty, it can and should be "certain enough for action". Faith involves the will as well as the reason.

There is a close correspondence between the scientific method and the life of faith. Both Science and Religion are based on evidence. In neither case is the evidence conclusive. In both it is natural and necessary to adopt as working certainties conclusions that are not formally certain [Newman, "Grammar of Assent" (1870)]. In both is it necessary to remain open to other, as yet unimagined, possibilities if progress is going to be made. The basic difference between Science and Religion is that it is not generally possible, practicable, admissible or appropriate to conduct controlled experiments to test religious theories. It is for a similar reason that it is not possible to conduct psychological experiments on a friendship or romantic relationship: to do so would call into question its basis, and so destroy the very thing that one was attempting to investigate. Human relationships have to be conducted on the basis of faith and trust and sincerity: not according to "double-blind" controlled laboratory conditions!

Establishing a view of the world is not a neat process. Induction is invalid and potentially misleading. Deduction, though valid, requires axioms: which are not available! Knowledge advances, but always within a Cloud of Unknowing. Progress can only be made by guess-work and intuition. Empiricism is an act of faith. It is based on the conviction that the world is comprehensible and coherent, unlike a nightmare or "Tom and Jerry" cartoon. This metaphysical conviction is empirically justifiable in no way, except that it works: it is the basis of all Western Civilization's science and technology. In every form of human inquiry faith necessarily precedes knowledge. Physics is as dependent on faith as is Theology.

Rather than three categories of knowledge:

  1. self-evident;
  2. empirical and
  3. faith based,
I contend that there are only two:
  1. Cosmological knowledge:
  2. Theological knowledge:
These differ only in their subject matter, not in their species.


The astute reader will note that my first problem remains. At the start of the process of learning, it would seem that one knows nothing: in which case the process of conjecture and refutation cannot be employed and no knowledge can be gained. This problem was first addressed by Plato in "Meno", where he asked how it could be possible either to inquire into something of which one was ignorant or something of which one had knowledge. In the first case one has no means of beginning to learn and in the second case one has nothing to learn!
Meno: Why, on what lines will you look, Socrates, for a thing of whose nature you know nothing at all? Pray, what sort of thing, amongst those that you know not, will you treat us to as the object of your search? Or even supposing, at the best, that you hit upon it, how will you know it is the thing you did not know?
Socrates: I understand the point you would make, Meno. Do you see what a captious argument you are introducing - that, forsooth, a man cannot inquire either about what he knows or about what he does not know? For he cannot inquire about what he knows, because he knows it, and in that case is in no need of inquiry; nor again can he inquire about what he does not know, since he does not know about what he is to inquire.
Meno: Now does it seem to you to be a good argument, Socrates?
Socrates: It does not.
Meno: Can you explain how not?
Socrates: I can; for I have heard from wise men and women who told of things divine that -
Meno: What was it they said ?
Socrates: Something true, as I thought, and admirable.
Meno: What was it? And who were the speakers?
Socrates: They were certain priests and priestesses who have studied so as to be able to give a reasoned account of their ministry; and Pindar also and many another poet of heavenly gifts. As to their words, they are these: mark now, if you judge them to be true. They say that the soul of man is immortal, and at one time comes to an end, which is called dying, and at another is born again, but never perishes. Consequently one ought to live all one's life in the utmost holiness.

For from whomsoever Persephone
shall accept requital for ancient wrong,
the souls of these she restores
in the ninth year to the upper sun again;
from them arise glorious kings
and men of splendid might and surpassing wisdom,
and for all remaining time
are they called holy heroes amongst mankind.
[Pind. Fr. 133 Bergk]

Seeing then that the soul is immortal and has been born many times, and has beheld all things both in this world and in the nether realms, she has acquired knowledge of all and everything; so that it is no wonder that she should be able to recollect all that she knew before about virtue and other things. For as all nature is akin, and the soul has learned all things, there is no reason why we should not, by remembering but one single thing - an act which men call learning - discover everything else, if we have courage and faint not in the search; since, it would seem, research and learning are wholly recollection. So we must not hearken to that captious argument: it would make us idle, and is pleasing only to the indolent ear, whereas the other makes us energetic  and inquiring. Putting my trust in its truth, I am ready to inquire with you into the nature of virtue. [Plato "Meno" 80d-81e]

Faced with this paradox, Plato refused to conclude that learning was an impossibility and instead proposed the hypothesis (which he later makes clear he was not absolutely committed to) that all learning was a form of remembrance of what had been temporarily forgotten. To make this proposal intelligible, he was forced to further propose that each human soul is pre-existent and was omniscient before it was made corporeal. This inevitably made the fact of human corporeality a great sadness as being the occasion of the loss of knowledge and the cause of ignorance and hence wickedness.

Instinctive knowledge

An alternative view is now possible, which Plato did not conceive of. This is based on Darwinian evolutionary theory. Every new-born infant has innate knowledge hard-wired into its brain. This is analogous to the "monitor program" and "boot sector" of a computer. In the case of a brain, it is genetically determined and manifests itself in terms of innate behaviours and dispositions. In the case of human and other animals with a significant ability to learn and adapt to changes in their environment, these instincts are the result of a breeding history that partly selected for those individuals who were best able to gain knowledge of their environment and use it to develop expertise that enhanced their ability to survive and breed.

The learning process is bootstrapped by this innate knowledge of "processes that work", and can be viewed as the unfolding of the implications of the truth of these processes. In a sense, Plato was exactly right. When we are born, we are gifted with a basic knowledge, expectation or anticipation of the kind of world in which we are to live, and the process of learning is the working out of the implications of this basic knowledge as applied to the experiences of life. This anticipation of the world is, however, not inherent in our "spiritual soul" and does not testify to its pre-existence. Rather, it is held in the physiological  construction of our brains and is the legacy of our evolutionary struggle: the births, lives and deaths of our ancestors.

Episteme and Doxa

Plato was committed to the notion that Doxa, even Orthodoxa, was no good and that only Episteme was worthwhile. I have argued that Episteme is unattainable and that only Orthodoxa is available to mortals. How can I do this as a good Platonist? Hence, I would expect Plato to agree with the analysis that I have presented here as differing insignificantly from his intent and in fact amounting to nothing more than a clarification of his own epistemology.

Knowledge of the good

The ethical problem that faces the typical human being is two-fold. First, there is a temptation to ignore the dictates of reason; and second, one never has certain and clear knowledge of what is good. The first part of the problem can be treated as an aspect of the latter; for if one knew clearly that some conclusion was reasonable and that no other was possible, then one would not be "tempted to ignore the dictate of reason". One might earnestly wish that some other conclusion was possible, but given that one knew clearly that it wasn't; one would necessarily have to accept, no matter how reluctantly, that "A is A" and make the best of it. I have dealt with the question: "Why do the good thing, when one knows what it is?" in more depth elsewhere.

Wishful thinking

The Platonic account of internal moral conflict is framed in terms of "wishful thinking". Whereas the most plausible view of a question might be "such and such", there are always alternative possibilities which simply cannot be excluded, given the partial and ambiguous nature of human knowledge. It is always open to the moral agent to choose to ignore the most plausible conclusion as to what is good and so the prudent course of action; in favour of some other conclusion that is preferable, according to some (perhaps in itself reasonable, noble and proper) metric. So, a husband faced by a midwife with the medical dilemma "save the mother or save the unborn child" might personally desire one objective above the other and so be motivated to favour this conclusion whatever the dictates of reason told him was the proper action.

Absolute right and Absolute wrong

It is important to note that the most important aspect of moral dilemmas is not the practical outcomes associated with choices but rather the metrical outcomes. This is what people mean by referring to "the thin end of the wedge" or "a slippery slope" when debating ethical questions. It may be that a certain choice - viewed in glorious isolation - might be clearly the advantageous one for all the parties concerned, however it may involve the breaching of a general "rule of conduct" that it is overwhelmingly advantageous to maintain. As soon as this "rule" is breached once then it will inevitably be breached again and again, with each infringement being more easily justified on the basis of precedent than the last. The ethical metric against which questions of right and wrong is measured will start to slip. In the end, the "rule" will become inoperative and the overwhelming advantage that resulted from its maintenance be entirely lost.

An example will best serve to explain what I mean. It is a general principle of ethics that: "the intentional taking of innocent life is always wrong", and in fact utterly reprehensible. I take the rational basis for maintaining this to be obvious. Now consider the case when the lives of very many people could only be saved by the intentional and direct killing of some innocent person who is not willing to die in this way. If an exception is made to our principle in this case, then it will lead: by a process of rational extension, to the most horrendous practices; for example: the intentional sacrifice of many innocent lives to save the life of some single (supposedly important) individual. The true long-term outcome of infringing such a rule is indefinitely terrible and this fact "trumps" all other considerations. This is what is meant when we say that some act is "absolutely and always wrong".

Note that this is not the same as the idea that some acts are intrinsically evil. The kind of ethical principle that I have indicated always has a context associated with it. In the example considered it was the taking of innocent life that was at issue, not all or any life without condition. Often, those - like pope John-Paul II - who wish to say that certain acts are intrinsically evil give examples which are true by construction: murder, suicide, slavery etc. etc.; for these all contain the judgement of wrongness within the definition of the act.


Once one starts to favour conclusions because they are more attractive, convenient or pleasant, rather than because one believes they are right, then one has adopted a false metric for what is right. This is the Platonic version of concupiscence and can be seen to correspond to St Paul's account of the matter just as well as the Aristotelian version. In fact this disformation of the will might be identified with "the sin living within me" referred to by the Apostle [Rom 7:20], as also the "law at war with the law of my mind .... the law of sin, which dwells in my members" [Rom 7:22] and "the flesh which serves the law of sin" [Rom 7:25].

On the other hand, the Apostle's language in earlier verses of his Epistle to the Romans is altogether more confused: "I do not do what I want to" [Rom 7:15] "nothing good dwells within me .... I can will what is right, but I cannot do it" [Rom 7:18] Indeed, taken at face value, these verses are self-contradictory: for "to will" some act is the same as "to do" it. Nevertheless, most people would acknowledge a large degree of sympathy with the Apostle's description of his experience of concupicense. Many people feel that although they often know what the right thing to do is, this doesn't mean that they do it. Frequently, their judgement is clouded by the overwhelming attraction of another imprudent choice. Faced with a substantial and obvious immediate benefit (or disbenefit), most people find it very difficult to act rationally; in accordance with their long term advantage. "jam tomorrow"[Lewis Carrol] is nowhere near as compelling a motive as "bread today", when you are hungry.

Even when one is pretty sure that a first course of action will result in sustained well-being and a second will result in ruin, the latter will be very attractive if coupled with a definite short term benefit or pleasure. In effect, one gambles on something else "turning up" that will make it possible to avoid the ruin of the second option, once its benefit has been obtained. This is, of course, opportunism or "wishful thinking"; otherwise known as greed or avarice: "I want it all, and I want it now!" [Queen]. It isn't so much that one "cannot do" what is right - this is hyperbole - but rather that the habit has been set of choosing short-term benefits over long-term ones.

The rational basis of concupiscence should be obvious. The ability to predict outcomes reliably declines rapidly as events further and further in the future are considered. Hence, if one action is expected to produce an immediate benefit and a remote disaster, while another is expected to produce immediate suffering and an eventual triumph; it is not altogether obvious that the second action is the better choice. The immediate benefit is pretty certain and may lead to other unenvisagable favourable possibilities. In every case, there is a judgement to be made in which future outcomes should be discounted according to the confidence associated with them. Manifestly, this is bound to produce disagreement among moral agents faced with the same dilemma; for even if they agree about the immediate and long-term consequences, it is highly implausible that they are going to agree about the likelihood associated with each predicted outcome. An additional complicating factor is the certain prospect of death, which means that the longest term considerations are of no rational interest to any moral agent that does not believe in "Eternal Life".

"I think that a general factor of a temporal discount - standard in reward theory - is involved when deciding what is best: if I gain immediate benefit but put off problems to the future, the negative value of the problem is discounted compared to an immediate problem or reward. Maybe this all relates to the further something is in the future, the less sure we can be that it will eventually materialize (the revolution may come first!) so it is rational in some sense.
Hence the importance of bringing up kids in a stable household (so that they get used to being able to predict rewards and punishments reliably) and a stable economy/culture (incentive to sacrifice now for a more certain future good) etc." [Dr P. Miller: private correspondence (March 2005)]
This Platonic analysis has the distinct advantage of not referring to the undefined concept of "will-power". On this view, while concupiscence is a defect of the will, it is not some mysterious weakness that is to be overcome by exercise. Rather, it is a disformation to be overcome by education, meditation, encouragement and enlightenment. This is not to say that discipline does not have a valid role in the correction of concupiscence. Confrontation with objective reality is a most effective way for "wishful thinking" to be brought to brook! Eventually, the person who spends money profligately will have to stop, simply because they run out of funds. If they do not, they will have to take up a life of crime to finance their extravagance and, hopefully, they will be caught, prosecuted, convicted and punished. St Paul tells us that God disciplines those who He loves.


The notion of "blame" or "culpability" can be identified with the objective fact of a disordered will. When a person systematically adopts a self-satisfied, complacent or conceited metric for what is right, then that metric is the proximate cause of whatever evil actions he or she perpetrates: their disordered will is "to blame", and it is appropriate for them to be punished so as to "bring them to their senses", and persuade them to adopt a more objective metric.

Evil is sickness

It follows from this view that personal evil is always a species of sickness. One way or another, a person has got into a state where they have an improper settled view of what is right and wrong. Their wickedness is simply this disformation of the will. It evolved out of natural predispositions, under the influence of external events and random mental processes, in other words by their "Free Will". It is not the fault of the person that "they are evil", it is just a fact about them. They were not "born bad". If their concupiscence can be rectified, then the fact that they used to be evil is no longer of any importance: it was no more their fault (for which they should carry guilt) that they were evil than it is their merit that they are no longer so. The fault lies in the past: in the evil will that they have lost. The virtue lies in the present: in the good will that they have gained. Hence the Judaeo-Christian view that repentance (which means the changing of an evil will into a good will) automatically calls for immediate and unqualified forgiveness.

Prudence and Temperance: How deep does wickedness go?

A corespondent wrote to me after reading a first version of this paper:
"I have one thing to discuss; on the idea of sinning out of not knowing. I think there is some truth in what you say, but I think that sometimes people deliberately choose to avoid knowing the truth. For example, people may choose to drink a lot when having an affair for example, to deliberately dull their mind to the knowledge that what they are doing is wrong so that it doesn't surface to spoil the fun.
I see what you call sin or wrongdoing, not as a lack of knowledge (which I call a mistake) but at the deeper level of resisting new knowledge whether by avoidance, by drugs, or by building up "rationalizations" which are rarely rational." [Dr P. Miller: private correspondence (March 2005)]
Dr Miller rightly insists that there are levels of wickedness. Every imprudent act that is executed on the basis of a disformed will is only marginally wicked. The fact that the will is already disformed mitigates the culpability of the act. It is the progressive disinformation of the will that is truly sinful: but this only occurs by repeated decisions that amount to a continued erosion of a prudential outlook. As Our Blessed Lord said:
"And he called the people to him and said to them: 'Hear and understand, not what goes into the mouth defiles a man; but what comes out of the mouth: this defiles a man.' ....
'Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth passes into the stomach, and so passes on? But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a man. For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a man; but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile a man.'" [Mat 15:10-11,17-20]
Nevertheless, I maintain that all wickedness is a form of ignorance. Negative ignorance: the mere absence of truth, is only the possibility of wickedness. Positive ignorance: the presence of falsehood, is the habituation of wickedness and the legacy of sin.

There is no possible original rationale for evil. By definition, sin always is contrary to the well-being of the sinner. This not because of some extrinsic punishment, but because of an intrinsic,  inevitable and sad necessity. Satan is the master of lies and there is no truth within him beyond the truth that holds him in being. The same choice always lies before the moral agent: to "choose life" and act according to his best prudential judgement or to "choose death" and act according to a self-deception. I suppose that such an act could result from over hasty judgement or carelessness: intemperance, but even these "explanations" would not explain anything if the moral agent knew that the decision facing him or her was important, with potentially grave consequences.

Once someone has chosen to act imprudently, it is only too plausible that as part of their resolve they will take care to mitigate or evade all evidence and considerations that they have already decided to discount. They will do so in order to reduce the present cost of non-compliance with their best judgement: the fear that they will suffer as a result of their exercise of free-will. As Dr Miller may be understood to imply, this is an aspect of "psychological hysteresis", and is truly wicked in itself because it tends to habituate the "death wish" represented by the original imprudential choice.

Education in virtue

Plato was very conscious that it was difficult to educate people into being kind, just and brave. While he believed that all virtue was a form of wisdom and wisdom was a type of knowledge, he took the fact that virtuous men were notoriously unsuccessful in passing on their virtue - even to their sons - as evidence against his conviction. I believe that he was mistaken in this self-criticism. It seems to me that the fact that it is difficult to inculcate virtue in a pupil would only indicate that virtue is not a form of knowledge, if knowledge was always attainable by a continuous process of incremental learning in which one idea was calmly established on the foundation already laid down by previous study or dialogue. However this is not the case.
Learning is not generally incremental
Even in the impersonal field of abstract mathematics, individuals regularly commit themselves to idiosyncratic accounts and explanations of formalism or technique. Perhaps this is inevitable for all people and all subjects, perhaps it is a personal failure in many cases: no matter, it happens. Whenever an understanding to which a pupil has committed themselves proves to be inadequate, a struggle ensues. The student will generally try very hard to maintain his/her current understanding: after all a lot of effort went into developing it! Only after a good deal of persuasion, will they consent to give it up. This can be a frightening experience for them. Whereas they had thought that they understood something: and perhaps they did, up to a point; now they are forced to face up to their ignorance. If they are fortunate, help will be on hand in the shape of a ready-made better account which they can adopt: first, on the authority of a teacher; and then come to grasp and understand by inspecting it from all angles and applying it in practice.
In the field of ethics, the situation is much worse. The evidence is always more equivocal, the arguments always more contentious, the outcomes more significant and the degree of personal commitment to cherished hypotheses or attitudes much higher. Hence the process of persuasion is liable to be much less smooth than that which is characteristic of less emotive topics of study. In the most extreme cases, individuals will resist the most intense educational process: seeing it (rightly or wrongly) as a form of indoctrination or brain-washing, and to be rejected at all costs. It is then normal for the educator to "give up" on the pupil and to discount him or her as incorrigible, when all that was perhaps required was a different approach.
Sometimes an individual will experience the standard hysteresis catastrophy in the field of personal ethic or outlook on life. If so they are liable to describe this in terms of a "conversion experience", for that is truly what it is.


What I have argued is that:
  1. Knowledge comes in two forms: theoretical and practical.
  2. The Scientific Method of "Conjecture and Refutation" is the sole systematic means of arriving at truth.
  3. Plato's theory of "learning as recollection" can be re-interpreted on a Darwinian basis.
  4. Ethics springs from epistemology:

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