Well what do you know?

When I was a child, I thought my Dad literally knew everything.  “I know everything” he said, on countless occasions.  Others have proposed that the naturalist, Alexander Von Humboldt, was the last man actually to know everything, and he died in 1859.  The ‘last man to know everything’ mantle has also been attributed to a number of others, from Aristotle to Francis Bacon.


Needless to say, in the modern world it’s impossible for any one of us to know everything, nor even a large part of the body of human knowledge.  We can’t even know everything about the many things that affect us directly on a daily basis.  And that’s a problem.

Even the things we do know, we don’t really know.  We believe them, but what’s the basis of that? Without going all epistemological, sometimes it’s through empirical evidence, but mostly it’s because we learned it from a source which we trust.

It’s increasingly a problem, because trusting others has become a risky business.  Well, actually it always was.  Take any piece of supposed knowledge you have and really interrogate it.  Take the laws of physics.  Some of the sub-atomic particles I learned about in school have been superseded by new, sexier ones which are even less easy to grasp and even more likely to be replaced. And those are the very foundations of matter.

When it comes to more mundane stuff, we’re on even dodgier ground.  I worked for many years in the energy business and everything I saw reinforced my belief that climate change is happening, it’s partly induced by man’s activities and that it will likely lead to the end of civilisation.  How long that doomsday scenario will take is uncertain, but probably within a few dozen generations.  However, some people genuinely doubt this.  In response, I commonly cite the fact that all the reputable scientists in the area agree with me.  But, if I’m honest, that’s only hearsay.  I’ve only actually spoken to a handful of scientists.  Anyway, scientific theories evolve and scientists change their prevailing wisdom over time.  That’s the nature of science.

And now, the rest of the world has cottoned on to this Cartesian doubt.  Encouraged by idiots people like Michael Gove (“People in this country has had enough of experts“) it seems anything goes, and authority is history.  Anyone can claim any old nonsense and there’s no requirement for evidence.  And consequently we’re right in the shit.  Because all this plays into the hands of the demagogues and the hate preachers.  Ladies and Gentleman, I give you Donald Trump, Nigel Farage and The Daily Mail.  And Brexit.


This has implications for brands and businesses too.  Corporate reputation is fundamentally based on trust.  Historically, that trust was built on the behaviour and ‘body language’ of a brand over time.  I think it still is, but the pillars of trust seem to be in flux.  Transparency is the vogue, but that means different things to different people.  One man’s transparency is another man’s clever manipulation.

Indeed the idea of trust itself can become a subject for a new brand promise.  I like the recent campaign for fruit drink Oasis, which takes this and plays games with it.


So there you have it.  Politics, philosophy, climate change and advertising.  Everything I love, all in one place.  We’re completely buggered, but there’s a neat insight for some ironic advertising.


Epistemology Friday

I honestly never thought I’d be living out one of the classic thought-experiments from a philosophy tutorial.  But that’s what happened.

I was picking my wife up from hospital where she had had some tests.  As I drove into the hospital complex, she called me to say the receptionist had informed her I had arrived and she’d meet me at the exit.  But how did they know I was there?  Especially when, at the time the message was delivered, I wasn’t.  Presumably some other patient’s partner had arrived and the receptionist told the wrong person.  But did they know I was there?  As a former student of epistemology – the philosophy of knowledge – this demanded further thought. (Yes I know, I know, but bear with me.)

Justified true belief is a definition of knowledge,  often credited to Plato and his dialogues. The concept states that in order to know that a proposition is true, we must not only believe the relevant true proposition, but also have justification for doing so.


Philosophers construct all manner of thought experiments to test the principle against our accepted use of the expression to know.  For example, cases in which we believe something for good reason but it turns out unexpectedly not to be true.  Do we know it?  Or cases where we believe something and it is indeed true, but we don’t have good cause for believing it.  Do we know it?
And here I was in real life in a situation which put the theory to the test –  my wife believed me to be there (tick) a belief which was true, but her justification was flawed.  Or was it?  Did she know I was there?
I do appreciate this belongs in ‘pseud’s corner’ but I couldn’t resist it.