Month: January 2020

Humans Cannot Have Certain Knowledge, and Considerations of that Fact


A problem in epistemology, Munchausen’s Trilema demonstrates that any theory of knowledge, including in mathematics, science and logic, cannot be certain and that no human beliefs, theories or models can ultimately be proven certain. Baron von Munchausen was a teller of tall tales and fantastical arguments, including that he impossibly pulled himself out of quicksand by pulling himself up by his own ponytail.

All statements of knowledge can be questioned as to their veracity, and, for certainty, must be proved true. The trilemma says there are three ways to try to answer questioned statements: 1) circular argument, 2) infinite regression or 3) axiomatic argument. Each proves to be incapable of finding certainty. 



  1. Circular reasoning, or begging the question


This is when you essentially use the statement to (try to) prove it true:


John: “God is real.”

Mary: “What is your justification for believing that true?”

John: “The Bible says God is real.”

Mary: “What is your justification for believing the Bible is true?”

John: “It is the word of God.”


This is circular reasoning with John saying God is real because God is real and says so


Nancy: “My sight is reliable?”

Pat: “Why do you say that?”

Nancy: “Because my eyes see that apple.”

Pat: “How do you know the apple is real and really there?”

Nancy: “Because I can see it right sitting right there.”

Nancy is basically arguing that her sight is reliable because her sight is reliable.


A logician saying logic is accurate because logic has shown this is circular reasoning. Science saying science proves that science is reliable is another example. No belief system, theory or way of thinking can prove itself true.


2) Infinite regression

This is like the young child who continually asks “But why?” to every answer you give. 


A is true because of b

B is true because of c

C is true because of d

Repeat until infinity


Carl: “My sight perception is an accurate perception of reality?”

Charlie: “How do you know that?”

Carl: “Because I took an eye test last week.”

Charlie: “How do you know the eye test is reliable?”

Carl: “Because it was performed by an optometrist who is an expert in eyes,”

Charlie: “How does the optometrist know that eyesight is an accurate representation of physical reality?”

Repeat until infinity or one quits in frustration or boredom or one or both of the two quit.


Some like this line of reasoning, at is the line of reasoning used in science, because it can involve lengthy analysis and, with proper arguments, the arguments will not be shown to be wrong. But it will never reach certainty because the questions continue forever without a final answer. 

Some philosophers say infinite regression is an elongated way of saying “I don’t know” or “I can’t be certain.” However, good long arguments can be considered ‘provisional truths,’ meaning working answers that are considered true for the time being, though may be found to be false in the future. However, it is likely that longer along the line you get, you will find questions you can’t answer or something that contradict the belief.

“The more deeply we explore any subject matter the more surely we are going to arrive at unexplained phenomena which challenge the entire framework of our quest for knowledge . . . The pursuit of knowledge is the pursuit from comprehension to incomprehension. We always start with something we know fairly well and end up with big puzzles.” – Philosopher Henryk Skolimowski, The Participatory Mind.

This says humans must be prepared for their rules to possibly if not probably be proven wrong, or at least having exceptions and needing refinements.


3) Axiomatic argument

This involves making unproven and often unprovable assumptions, or axioms.


John: “My sight perception gives a reliable view of physical nature.”

Nancy: “How do you come to that answer?”

John: “I assume my perception is reliable. Don’t you assume yours is?”


All human endeavors and conceptions, including yours and mine and the most famous scientists and philosophers, involve unproven or unprovable assumptions.

Circular reasoning, or begging the question, can be considered really to be axiomatic reasoning. “I believe God is real, because (I assume) God is real.”


Godel’s Incompleteness Theorems

Kurt Godel’s incompleteness theorems also illustrate the limits of knowledge and certainty within theories and models, both scientific and unscientific.

Mathematician and logician Kurt Godel’s incompleteness theorems showed that no closed system can prove everything and cannot be used to prove its own accuracy or everything within its own system. The latter is similar to the philosophical fact that “A human cannot determine the accuracy of its own mind, because the tool used to test and judge the accuracy (its mind) is of undetermined accuracy.” Gödel’s incompleteness theorems show that any logical system either has contradictions or statements that cannot be proven.

And if you add parts to the system in an attempt to check a closed system’s reliability, you’re merely created a larger closed system. Godel’s theorem cannot be escaped.

At a time when mathematicians and philosophers were trying to create a logical and neatly structured system to show everything, Godel’s theorems were considered earth-shattering and today are ranked as landmarks in the history of mathematics, science and philosophy.

They also demonstrate that today’s physicists trying to create a certain “Theory of Everything” are playing a fool’s game.

Gödel’s discovery not only applied to mathematics but all branches of science, logic and human knowledge.



The Munchausen Trilemma and Godel’s Incompleteness how certain knowledge, including in science and logic, is unattainable.



While it is simply fact that humans can’t have certain knowledge, there is a wide variety of considerations and opinions about the significance and relevance of this uncertainty. 

To some, the lack of knowledge is of profound relevance. If one is concerned with the search for metaphysical and objective truths about reality, the inability to even know the reliability of one’s own sensory perception and mind is of profound significance and often deep disappointment. 

To others, the uncertainty does not bother them or is irrelevant to their practical purposes and interests. I have a hardcore atheist medical scientist colleague at Oxford, and I asked her for her philosophy behind her atheism. She said she intentionally removed the question and topic of God from her life, so she could focus on other things. 

Some may rightly say that, yes, there is uncertainty in all things including science, but science still produces reliable results within its scope and purpose. There is much unknown about quantum physics but it produces usable results and practical products. There are uncertainties and biases in engineering, but it builds sturdy bridges and working cars. To many engineers, the inability to know metaphysical meaning and many areas lay outside of science, is beside the point to their work. 

Further, humans have evolved to function in ambiguity and uncertainty. They were born, raised and go about our lives not knowing many things, have evolved to act in social situations where they don’t know and can’t know what others think, act and make decisions for an unknown future and ambiguous present. The human ability to function, survive and thrive in an environment of constant uncertainty and ambiguity is a great skill. 

Some people simply can psychologically live in uncertainty better and more contentedly than others. Some psychologically “need answers and for there to be answers,” while others do not.

And many of the greatest and proudest achievements of humans are the products of uncertainty. Many great and moving artworks, many scientific and knowledge discoveries, are the products of being faced with mystery. 


‘Where Do We Come From? What Are We Doing? Where Are We Going?’ by Paul Gauguin (1897)

However, whatever one’s opinion, consideration or viewpoint on the limits of one’s knowledge, the lack of uncertainty is a fact.


“There is much in the universe we will never know, and it is equally certain that we will never know all that we do not know.”–  Joseph Silk, Gresham Professor of Astrophysics, Oxford University


As a longtime academic scholar who has also written about being Type I bipolar and on the autistic spectrum, I was asked to write about how being bipolar has affected my academic work.

The short answer is very much.  My different way of thinking and perceiving has greatly influenced my work and has been a key element to my innovation and success.  Thinking and feeling differently means seeing different things, seeing things from a different viewpoint and not accepting orthodoxy that is naturally accepted by the majority.

This essay touches both on my mental illness in relation to my work, and my academic work itself.  They are related.

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My work is in cognitive science and epistemology.  I study and write about minds (human, non-human animal, artificial, group, theoretical), how they work and their limits, and the nature and limits of human knowledge. Areas of study have included art perception, mystical experiences, artificial intelligence, visual illusions, symbolic language, the nature and limits of science and logic, the psychology of religion and belief systems, and what humans can and cannot know. 


My cognitive science and philosophy textbooks

There are many different ways of thinking and organizing information, and all human conceptions, theories and belief systems are created by the mind. Psychology, as an academic discipline, should go hand in hand with philosophy, science, political science, theology and all academic areas.  A philosopher’s philosophy can no more escape his mind than he can escape being human. The same with a scientist, theologian and any other type of thinker.

Immanuel Kant wrote that there are things as they appear to humans, and these constitute the immanent world of common, personal experience. He said these appearances are illusions because they are translations by the human senses and mind, and that things in their true nature and forms are beyond empirical access. He said things in their true nature belong to reality and transcend human experience, knowledge and senses, and that humans cannot have true knowledge of reality.

Humans cannot step outside out of their own minds and senses, outside of themselves and the human species to see the blind spots, delusions and biases that they are unaware of. This is one of the essential limits of human thought, conceptions and knowledge, and of self-assessment.

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I am Type I bipolar and autistic. Type I bipolar is a mental illness, and I’ve exhibited symptoms since I was a little kid.  The illness and its causes are complex and, as with most areas, not fully understood or easily categorized. There often is a genetic and environmental component, with the brain cognitively, chemically and emotionally functioning differently than normal. Autism also involves organizing and perceiving information differently, and having differernt emotional perceptions and intretations of things.

I won’t go through my colorful personal history dealing with the mental illness other than to say that I’ve been on lithium or anti-seizure medications for more than half of my life and have had psychotic episodes and mystical experiences throughout my life at least since I was seven years old.  

While adapting to society’s norms and expectations has been a skill practiced and developed over time, I don’t say that I’ve succeeded in my work as a scholar despite my mental illness but because I think differently than others. I am an original and fiercely independent thinker, one looking at things from different and new viewpoints. Do I consider my thinking differently a curse?  Of course not. It’s a gift and I wouldn’t have it any other way. I am proud of who I am.

Anyone who knows me well knows that I have what I call my “traits.”

  • I don’t think or naturally express myself linearly, or at least linearly by society’s conventions.  I aesthetically like disorder, complexity, ambiguity, and dislike neatness, order, simplicity and symmetry. I don’t like or participate in group ceremonies and dislike cliches, buzz words, crowd following and groupthink.  
  • I don’t have the same emotional reactions and sensibilities as others.  While social and gregarious, I don’t form close emotional connections as others do or have a need to.
  •  I’m a well known as a contrarian who questions orthodoxy, and rejects dogma.
  •  I’m well known for my off-beat and provocative sense of humor

When I was young, my engineering professor father said to me, “You have a strange mind.”  He followed that up by saying that, as a professor, he meant that as a compliment in that I thought about subjects that never even entered most peoples’ minds and saw topics from unique viewpoints. It didn’t surprise him that I became a philosopher.

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My dad and I when I was four

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Humans are sensory information processors

Humans receive limited sensory information and use various complex internal methods to process, categorize and try to make sense of the information in order to make perception, judgments and pick courses of action.  That is what humans are about.  Much of my work has been studying how humans and non-humans process information.

There are countless real and theoretical ways for a brain to process sensory information.  Each method is limited and has its own set of biases, subjectivity and trade-offs. Humans cannot know which, if any, is the ”best” or  “correct” way, or even if there is a best or correct way.  Non-human animals and artificial intelligence process information differently and can do it better for their particular, narrow purposes.


Along with the limited sensory information received, this is one of the limitations of human knowledge.  We have no idea if our way of thinking is correct, and in fact knowing it has many problems, distortions and limitations.

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Visual illusions demonstrate that physical reality and human perception of reality are different things. Despite the appearance, the middle bar does not change in color or tone. If you cover up the image so only the bar is showing, you will see this.

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Simplifying and generalizing this greatly for this essay, humans normally use two competing and simultaneous forms of thinking to function. Think of them as offering two viewpoints and checks and balances on each other, or two heads are better than one.  Neither is correct, each gives a different limited view and different perspective, but working together they allow the human to function well in the world

Parts of the brain process and interpret the sensory information in an emotional, aesthetic, visceral, holistic way– and this forms much of our emotional, intuitive, aesthetic reactions to stimuli.  

Separately but simultaneously other parts of the brain order, categorize, label and “intellectually” processes information. The raw sensory information has to be given some structure, categories and labels to try to understand what to do with it.  To do this brain unconsciously creates an artificial imaginary structure to the information. To humans, their perceptions of physical geography, categories, identities and the way they mark and perceive time are artificial constructs created by their brains.

Human symbolic language is a distinctly human thing where the parts of the brain artificially order and label things for convenient use. Not unlike a computer, humans translate sensory information into symbols.  

Link: Numeral systems and psychology

In my area of epistemology (the study of the natue and limits of knowledge), a key to know is that human biology and thinking are primary about functioning and survival, and function involves and in fact requires the distortion and suppression of information, the use of unconscious biases and even lying to oneself.  Human perception and thinking is distorted and delusory in many ways.

Whether our mental methods used for function can also, as a side effect, prove or examine objective and metaphysica.truth is a question to ponder and one humans cannot actually answer. Though I am highly skeptical.


The impossible trident visual illusion demonstrates how humans form perceptions by focusing on some information while ignoring other. The viewer forms a perception about the whole from looking at just one end. When she looks at the other end, she realizes her perception was wrong. Unlike some visual illusions where part of the image is blocked and left to the viewer’s imagination, there is no missing information here. All of the information is there for the viewer see, but the viewer forms the initial perception as if information is hidden. She mentally hides, or ignores, the information herself. Part of the explanation is that the human brain doesn’t have the capacity to cognitively process the sensory information it receives all at once, and so focuses and ignores.

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Mental illnesses and processing information differently

People with mental illnesses process sensory information differently than normal. 

Schizophrenics, for example, perceive all the normal sensory information but lack the standard methods normal people have to cognitively structure, order and label the information as normal people do.  This is the reason they have trouble adapting to society’s norms.

However, as they perceive and experience information in a different way, schizophrenics have included original artists, thinkers and mystics.  A schizophrenic artist said being schizophrenics is great for painting and writing poetry, but horrible for driving because you are constantly immediately aware of every crack and leaf in the road.  Many famous ancient mystics, prophets and aboriginal societies, who processed sensory information in valid but different ways, would be cataloged today as schizophrenic.  

For me, there are two major aspects of my mental illness that are relevant: a different cognitive ordering of information, and having different emotional experiences and associations.  These are often closely tied together.


Cognitive ordering

All functional systems require assumptions, definitions, labels, categorization and rules to function.

Humans must translate things to understand and perceive them.  Thus, how humans translate things– what particular models, styles, narratives, perceptions of time and space and categories, language– is of great significance because it forms how humans perceive things. All human translations, including the socially standard ones, involve arbitrary and artificial rules and definitions, and unproven and often unprovable assumptions.  

Humans must translate things in order to understand them, but what they understand is the translation.

I have a different than normal ways of cognitively ordering things, and, when left to my own devices, a different way of expressing them.  This is particularly true in how I organize and make narratives about information.

Narrative is an integral part of how humans perceive, identify and judge information. A narrative is the conscious and non-conscious story people see and tell about their lives, used to describe observed situations and even still objects. Narrative includes perception of time, plotting, mood, point of view, emphasis (what is important. what is not), character motives, etc. When humans look at a still photo or painting or a distant stranger couple standing at the light we perceive a story in progress. 


Describe what going on above. Even though this is an absctract combination of dots and lines, most will say this shows two balls racing towards each other. Viewers can even describe what they see as happening before and after this image. However, unlike a movie still or snapshot photo, there neither is nor was any before or after. As I am the one who created this design, I can assure that thia is the only image, the one and only existense of these dots and lines. There is no narrative with this image other than as speculated by the viewer. That it shows balls on a line is itself a product of the viewer’s imagination.

Narrative is how we understand, assign meaning and communicate ideas.  In schoolroom lessons, religious allegories and daily conversation, stories are a method to explain ideas to others.  Though the stories are often false and misleading, humans are storytellers.

The following link explores the different and competing ways humans can and do narrate information.

Link: Narrative and the perception of still information

I tend to apply different narratives, ordering and aesthetic styles to information.  This is expressed in the ways I talk, and in the way I write.  Though I conform to standard writing styles in my academic books and here, I find the standard and academic narratives and styles to be arbitrary, artificial, stifling and thus false. Unlike my textbooks, my books Noise Music and Return Trip represent my natural non-linear way of thinking, writing and aesthetic sense.  They are also in part commentaries on how aesthetic and narrative biases affect knowledge.


Emotional meaning and associations

Emotions, emotional intuition and aesthetic biases are integral parts of human thinking and function.  They are integral parts of human intelligence and reason, including as used by scientists, mathematicians and logicians.  London School of Philosophy lecturer Rachel Paine compared emotions to sensory perception: 

“Emotions bear complex relationships to rationality. On one hand they are seen as arational or irrational, on the other they make our actions intelligible and arguably lift us above the purely mechanistic behaviours of machines. Much like human sensory perception, emotions perform an essential function: they inform us about the world.”

Much important human thinking, conceptions and beliefs– such as about metaphysical and emotional meaning, morality, aesthetics and ethics, art, social life, beauty, social intelligence, life decisions– are beyond objectivity and logic, and are based in subjective and emotional thinking. Having different emotional and aesthetic interpretations and emotions are thus of great significance.


The academic and abstract painter Wassily Kandinsky studied how colors, patterns and shapes conveyed emotional and spiritual meaning to viewers.

Being Type I bipolar and autistic, especially when one has it during one’s formative childhood years, involves having and developing different emotional and intuitive interpretations and associations. Considering the cognitive significance of emotions in making assumptions, forming world views and answering subjective metaphysical questions, this has profound significance.

Since I was young, I’ve also had a different general sense of the world and the things in it. I’ve felt things differently. 

Mystical experiences are a common symptom of bipolar mania, along with epilepsy and schizophrenia.  Mystical experiences happen when the normal cognitive structures that define time, space and categories are suppressed in the brain and the sensory information is processed emotionally.  This results in a radically different perception of the world and the things in it.

Link: Mystical Experiences: The Neverending Debate

These different emotional and aesthetic ways of perceiving the world and things in it forces one to question conventional assumptions and perceptions, and not rotely accept the views and subjective truths and assumptions that are widely held by others.  I’m noted for not being human-centric in my writing, and, as, an academic studying minds, I can more objectively observe how others think and perceive.


Some have suggested than Van Gogh was bipolar

My Oxford University medical scientist colleague and friend says, as with other bipolar people she knows, I’ve been trained to follow the social rules and norms but they do not come intuitively to me as I feel things differently.  Bipolar people and schizophrenics can have impaired theory of mind, meaning having less of an ability to identify mental states in others and themselves. My friends says, through repetition and habit as being part of society, I go through the motions without with intuitive feelings.

In peer reviewing my books, such as Philosophy of Artificial Intelligence, she and I can be at philosophical odds.  As a medical scientist, she views humanity from within, while, as a philosopher, I tend to it from outside. She wants me to refer to humans as ‘we’ instead of my usual ‘they.’    

Many bipolar people have a love-hate relationship with the medicine and treatments.  The medicine and treatments are about thinking and functioning according to society’s norms (which is important), but many bipolar people, often artists, do not like how it suppresses their different and creative ways of thinking.  Studies have pointed to creativity, intelligence and bipolar disorder having the same underlying genetic traits.

Link: Intelligence, creativity and bipolar disorder may share underlying genetics

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My being able to perceive and cognitively order things differently has shown the arbitrary, artificialness and dubiousness of the standard human way of thinking.  However, it has not shown that my way of thinking and perceiving is better, but that there are other ways.  I often point out that my way of thinking isn’t better or more correct, just different. 

The essential conclusions of my cognitive science and epistemological work are that there are different ways of perceiving, interpreting and categorizing sensory information, and that each way has its own subjectivity, biases, distortion, unprovable assumptions and limits.  In part due to this, humans cannot obtain certain knowledge and everything is opinion.

Though, while that humans cannot obtain certain knowledge is the answer to that philosophical question, the vast areas of subjectivity and opinion– speculation, imagination art, spiritually, political science, making choices in an ambiguous and unknowable envirnoment– is another philosophical area full of further study.