One of the things people care about more than anything else in the world is ancient Greek philosophy. At parties, the person surrounded by the most rapt of audiences is the one describing their perspective on Epicureanism and its virtuous hedonism. Pestering a first date like a gadfly, inquiring into the nature of justice, is a surefire way to get them to suggest you drink hemlock; a celebratory homage to the father of Western philosophy, and a guaranteed second date if you can survive the hemlock. These are all true facts, but how did I learn that they are true facts? This is my very clever segue into Meno’s paradox, a conundrum spoken by Meno in Plato’s dialogue, the Meno.

If you know something, inquiry is unnecessary. If you don’t know something, inquiry is impossible. We can’t seek out something we don’t know about, and why would we bother trying to learn about something we already know? For example, if you didn’t know that Socrates was condemned to death for impiety and corrupting the youth, and willingly drank the poisonous hemlock as an act of defiance against willful ignorance, then how would you ever learn? Especially if you didn’t even know who Socrates was? Alternatively, since we’re all eager amateur historians of philosophy here, and you have a full understanding of the political embarrassment Socrates caused the powerful Athenian elites which contributed to his execution, then you reading all this again is redundant and pointless.

And yet, if you didn’t know, you have now learned these things. How on Earth did you resolve the paradox? Of course, maybe I lied or was too convoluted in my explanation, and you have come away with an imperfect belief. Or maybe history is hard to translate after 2500 years and some details are surely lost to the point where any story about the life of Socrates is essentially fiction. How do you know?

Plato’s solution is a theory of recollection. Human beings possess eternal souls, and being eternal, have an omniscient understanding of the universe. We know things because when we reflect on a subject, we can acquire a fraction of the infinite understanding that has a certain feel of knowledge that separates it from belief. However, I expect that there are fewer of you who would authentically subscribe to a dead mythology than who would willingly accept the inherent sexiness of Greek philosophy, so we’ll have to do better than that.

Plato’s theory is not entirely ridiculous, and instinctual knowledge, such as a baby knowing to suckle when things are put into its mouth, could be interpreted as biological memory of evolutionary development. Our primal drives are not learned in the traditional sense, but acquired through the collective mode of our very being. This kind of knowledge, however, does not include much of what we consider worth knowing.

There are actually eight ways of knowing with varying degrees of credibility relative to the infinite wisdom of an eternal soul: language, sense perception, emotion, reason, imagination, faith, intuition, and memory. Let’s go through them to see how we know what we know.

Language: You are reading this and possibly learning things based entirely on your ability to understand language. The words we have represent things in the world, and being able to name a thing or a concept allows us to discuss it. Of course, language is complicated, subjective, socially constructed and ultimately ambiguous in its communication (think of how many text messages are misconstrued because of their foundation grounded solely in language).

Sense perception: If you think about it, the only way you’re even able to read these words is because you have working eyeballs or maybe you’re listening to this on a text-to-speech program. We intake worldly experiences through our senses: taste, hearing, sight, smell, touch, and seeing dead people. Now, the senses are heavily flawed and human beings are rubbish at sensory input compared to other animals, so typically we utilize the sensory input of others to verify whether our perceptions are real or imagined. The addition of intrinsically flawed data does not seem to be the best format for gaining knowledge and really sounds more like it would compound the problem rather than ameliorate it, so let’s keep going.

Emotion: I’m following a list given by this website, so if you’re wondering why I just went from one of the most defensible positions in the accumulation of knowledge to probably one of the least, that’s why. When we experience an event, we typically respond emotionally to it, giving us an impression of how that event relates to us. However, let’s think about the movie What Dreams May Come. It’s a movie that moved me deeply, but those emotions are based entirely on a fiction. The reality of that film was actors in a studio surrounded by lights, cameras, microphones, and dozens of people bustling about to create that fiction. My emotional response is so far gone from the reality of what actually was happening in What Dreams May Come that to credit it as an indicator of knowing something about the world is absurd. My emotional response is going to be my interpretation about what is presented directly toward me, regardless of the inner contexts that might be contributing to that presentation. Also there is bias, subjectivity, etc. etc. It is a bad way to know things, is what I’m driving at.

Reason: There are two types of reason: deductive and inductive. Deductive reasoning is A=B, B=C, therefore A=C.  So, for example, all dogs have fur, Rex is a dog, therefore Rex has fur. This method of logic is entirely based on the veracity of its premises. Another example: all pit bulls are vicious, Rex is a pit bull, therefore Rex is vicious. This is valid based on the premises, but how do we know about the premises? #NotAllPitBulls. Induction is coming to a conclusion based on the repetition of observations; A has always appeared to lead to B, therefore A causes B. So dogs have fur (based on the social understanding of what ‘dog’ means) because every instance of a dog I’ve seen before has fur. You’ll notice that reason is heavily influenced by the already discussed, incredibly fallible empiricism of the senses. In addition, it is a shaky assumption that just because something has happened before it necessarily must happen again. This comic does a good job of looking at reason as a way of knowing, and has the line, “If man had not first experienced the sky, he never could have deduced the clouds from nothing!” which again shows how dependent reason is on the senses for its viability as a way of knowing.

Imagination: The explanation given for this one is if we think of a lemon or a lime, we can imagine what each tastes like and then infer which is more sour. This creates sensation without the sensory input. Alternatively, there is propositional imaginings, where one can imagine scenarios and infer information based on those imaginings. I mean, I guess this is kind of a knowledge, but it’s speculation based on memory at best, and not really a true way of knowing.

Faith: This is really just an extreme form of belief. I don’t know why they included it since knowing by definition is antithetical to faith.

Intuition: Intuition would be interesting to consider under a mythological pretext that I’m sure Plato would enjoy discussing, but the current common consensus is that what we know as intuition is the observations of our subconscious recognizing trends in the world and suggesting them to our brain before we consciously can perceive anything. Somehow I doubt that our subconscious observations are much better than our conscious ones, as they are still relying on sensory input, so unfortunately gut feelings aren’t all that great at being a way of knowing either.

Memory: The definition given by my go-to website here defines memory as “the faculty which allows us to retain information and reconstruct past experiences.” This is obviously a better definition than what I would have given as, “the tool with which we remember things we already knew.” My definition is a redundant way of knowing, and the website’s definition is probably worse since it is reconstructing past experiences, which in turn further degrades the already imperfect, original sensory input.

Holy fuck that was exhausting. Plus, we have even more problems than flawed ways of knowing. When I described language, your first thought was surely, “If language is subjective and socially constructed, then how do we even know what we mean when we say the word knowledge?” And you’d be absolutely correct. What is it to know something? Commonly, we interpret knowledge as a justified true belief. Knowledge is believing something based on some degree of evidence that matches with the reality of the world. Sounds legit. Enter Edmund Gettier.

The Gettier Problem is more thematic than specific, and it asks us to consider a shepherd who looks out at a hill and sees his sheep. However, this is actually a dog that looks like a sheep from afar, and isn’t his sheep at all. His sheep is on the other side of the hill, just out of view. This farmer may believe that his sheep is on the hill, which is as justified based on his observations and is indeed true, but his knowledge is still based on a falsity. Or a person who looks at a clock, sees that it is 2 o’clock at a time when it is indeed two o’clock, but does not realize that the clock had stopped exactly 12 hours earlier. Gettier’s actual problem is quite silly compared to these more reasonable ones, even though it still carries the main thrust of the argument. Here it is just so you can have a laugh:

Suppose that Smith and Jones have applied for a certain job. And suppose that Smith has strong evidence for the following conjunctive proposition: (d) Jones is the man who will get the job, and Jones has ten coins in his pocket.
Smith’s evidence for (d) might be that the president of the company assured him that Jones would in the end be selected, and that he, Smith, had counted the coins in Jones’s pocket ten minutes ago. Proposition (d) entails: (e) The man who will get the job has ten coins in his pocket.
Let us suppose that Smith sees the entailment from (d) to (e), and accepts (e) on the grounds of (d), for which he has strong evidence. In this case, Smith is clearly justified in believing that (e) is true.
But imagine, further, that unknown to Smith, he himself, not Jones, will get the job. And, also, unknown to Smith, he himself has ten coins in his pocket. Proposition (e) is then true, though proposition (d), from which Smith inferred (e), is false. In our example, then, all of the following are true: (i) (e) is true, (ii) Smith believes that (e) is true, and (iii) Smith is justified in believing that (e) is true. But it is equally clear that Smith does not know that (e) is true; for (e) is true in virtue of the number of coins in Smith’s pocket, while Smith does not know how many coins are in Smith’s pocket, and bases his belief in (e) on a count of the coins in Jones’s pocket, whom he falsely believes to be the man who will get the job

So not only are all the ways of knowing flawed in some fundamental way, but knowledge itself is indistinguishable from falsehood given the proper circumstances. This is all the more apparent when we consider the contrasting sources of knowledge that one can acquire via their Facebook newsfeed.  This Wall Street Journal algorithm pits the two realities of democrats and republicans against one another to show just how different they are. The bubbles we create around ourselves only feed us one side of the story, and when falsity stands side by side with reality, identical in every appearance, even without the purposefully fake news stories we still can only ever be uncertain about our knowledge and how we attained it, lest we fall victim to blind dogmatism.

So how do we get from one end of Meno’s Paradox to the other? We don’t, it seems. The best we can hope for is to continue learning, remaining skeptical of our own ideologies, open to new avenues of thought because being certain only proves our ignorance.