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How Do You Know?

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Much of political debate resides in the realm of opinion. It seeks answers as to what we think. Of all the possible questions one might ask in any situation, on any issue or of any person, perhaps the most important question of all is how do you know. In Plato's "The Republic" Socrates lays out a hierarchy of thought that runs from opinion to knowledge. Imbedded within that scale at the bottom is illusion. Moving up the scale we find belief, reasoning and finally intelligence. The question "How do you know?" seeks the upper end of that scale. It seeks to take the debate out of the realm of illusion and opinion and into the realm of reasoning and knowledge.

Political dialog often takes the form of opinion, prediction or factual omissions and demands critical thought. Responses such as "it's common knowledge" or "it's just common sense" also demand critical thought. All of us should be willing to debate our beliefs and opinions, but we should not expect to convert an opponent to our point of view based on those alone. Debates are often won or lost on the basis of facts, and when the facts offered are not verifiable, or are not facts at all, the debate falls to opinion, and possibly argumentation, so knowledge plays an important role. The questioning of authority seems to have fallen out of favor with the mainstream media and is left primarily to alternate news sources and individual discernment. Most of us are not in a position to directly question authority on the validity of their words and must rely on others to do so, but we can apply the same principle in our own daily interactions. To be a fully informed consumer of news and debate, whether political or otherwise, would require a tremendous amount of time and research. It may be prudent to accept at face value those statements which have plausibility, but for those not meeting those criteria it pays to be skeptical regardless of the source. In an era of dirty tricks politics perfected by the likes of Karl Rove that skepticism is even more vital. The answer is to think critically and question those looking for you to accept their words as true. How do you know?

The place to start is with self. What is it that makes you who and what you are? Much of that entails a belief system, so it makes sense to ask ourselves, how do we know? This is not to say that everything has a yes or no or a right or wrong answer, some things are not definable in this manner, yet they still help define self. Religious beliefs are often an important aspect of who we are yet the Bible's first mention of the word knowledge is to forbid the partaking of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. The Bible describes faith as the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen and extols the virtues of strong faith while casting little or weak faith in a negative light. Relying on beliefs and faith, however, does not answer the question of how do you know. Asking ourselves how we know is mainly a philosophical exercise attempting to eliminate illogical biases. The practical application comes in the form of a critical attitude of what we see read and hear on a daily basis, primarily in the form of debate and the news. Any proclamation made in the form a factual statement is open to question. We need to be mindful, therefore, of the phrases we use and the arguments we make, as well as being alert for those that are used for our consumption. Are we to accept the words of those we read and hear on faith, or should we judge them critically by asking how those making the statement know their words are factual? We will often find that statements of fact are actually statements of opinion or parroting the statements of others without knowledge of the facts. Thus when asked directly, how do you know, the opponent is put on the defensive. The same also applies to each of us individually as we ponder what might happen in any given situation. How do we know? Often we don't.

None of this is to say that opinion and beliefs are unimportant for they are not. What I am suggesting is that when the opportunity arises it pays to question the words you are expected to accept. The best question may not be "What do you think?" but "How do you know?". It is simply rejecting illogical statements and a refusal to accept the framing of those who use opinions alone to make their arguments. Doing so will allow you to remain in control of the debate. Think critically; question self and others; question everything; demand proof; use words wisely and hold yourself to the same high standards as others. Be ready and willing to ask the hard question, but be as willing and ready to answer it as well. How much of what is currently being hotly debated might not have even happened had someone asked how do you know?
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Mark Petersen has a B. A. in Speech Communications/Public Address & Rhetoric and is currently a Master of Humanities candidate in the Interdisciplinary Studies Department of Philosophy at the University of Colorado at Denver. His writing and (more...)
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