Explaining Knowledge To A 5-Year-Old

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It’s interesting to think about how do we know what we know. And no, I am not talking about just academic knowledge or professional skills. But literally, everything that we know, right from how to talk to religious stories and the latest celeb gossips.

If you think about it, we generally know from our observation of surroundings, own experience, and also through parents, society, schools, books, etc., all of which can be broadly classified into the following 4 categories.

  1. Authority
  2. Intuition
  3. Senses and Experience
  4. Induction / Deduction Reasoning

Authority: We know a huge chunk through family, society, schools, institutions, religious leaders, books, etc, which are all but authorities.

Intuition: We also sometimes know about things via our instinct, what we love to call our gut feeling or intuition. Like knowing sometimes if someone is lying to you, even without any clue or evidence. 

Senses and Experience: It is through our senses and the resulting experience that we know most. After all, our senses are our instruments to observe and experience the world, and we value what we sense and experience above many other sources of knowledge.

Inductive / Deductive Reasoning: We can also through reasoning, beyond what we have seen and what we already know. 

Let’s say you go to a village in Nepal and you only see grazing animals there. Through reasoning known as Inductive Reasoning, you come to a general conclusion that all animals in that village are Herbivores. So, Inductive Reasoning moves from specific observations to broad generalization. 

Let’s imagine the same scenario but with a different twist now. Let’s say you read about the village beforehand that all animals there are Herbivore. After that, every time you come across an animal there, you come to a conclusion that the particular animal must be a Herbivore, even without seeing it eat anything. This mode of reasoning is known as Deductive Reasoning, which moves from broad generalization to specific observations

And it is through Induction and Deduction reasoning also that we know. 

There are of course other paths of knowing also, as one could bring up revelation for instance. Accounts of people knowing through revelation (like during meditation) are prevalent across different cultures and regions. But it is mostly through these four modes that we know. 

Or at least we think we know.

Do you notice the slight change in the tone with “at least we think we know” above? Well, that’s because till now I had used the word “Knowledge” loosely. From our intuition of “why someone might be lying to us” to our induction of “Every animal in a particular village is a herbivore”, I was counting all of this information as Knowledge.

But the word knowledge itself comes with some prerequisites. So, we finally come to the starting point, that is, what is knowledge? 

What is knowledge? 

Taking a leaf from philosophy, knowledge is best defined as justified true belief. Okay, three meaningful back-to-back words in a sentence, so spare me a minute to explain with an example! 

Let’s say I think Santa Claus exists for real. In this case, it is just my belief, and it doesn’t qualify as knowledge, simply because it is not true (sadly). Now let’s say there is actually a real Santa Claus out there but hidden from everyone (just imagine!). And yet, my belief doesn’t qualify as knowledge (despite it being true), simply because I have no evidence to justify my belief. Only when I come up with solid evidence of Santa Claus being out there can I count my belief as justified true belief, that is knowledge. 

There are even more arguments and debates regarding the philosophical definition of knowledge. But for now, we will leave the arguments for philosophers (because guess what, it’s their job doing arguments!)

Plus, we have one final puzzle to address now, and that is — how do we know if something is true? 

How do we know something is true?

It’s easy to know if a statement is true for statements like “Paris is the Capital of France”. But it’s painstakingly difficult to pursue truth in statements like “How the Universe expanded out a condensed Singularity” or “How a Bacteria transformed Earth from hostile atmosphere to Oxygen-friendly atmosphere”.

And that is where Science comes in! 

Science, our friend, our savior, and — humanity’s greatest tool in understanding our world — will help us know if something is true, or at least guide us in our pursuit of truth. 

We use Scientific Method to know why things are what they are and to pursue the truth. Remember, most of the knowledge that we know from authorities, especially academics and books, are also products of the Scientific Method.

While the Scientific Method also uses intuition, authority, observation, and induction to get ideas and information, it goes further and tests our ideas, in what is our “neverending” pursuit of truth and knowledge. Notice how I have used the word neverending in the previous sentence. Because, surprise surprise, even the Scientific Knowledge is provisional, meaning the best we can know at the moment. 

So, to address that, I will talk about the Scientific Method in our next story, hopefully in a fun and detailed manner!

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