How Do We Know What We Know?

As the headmaster of the school at which I used to teach would often ask the students, “How do you know what you know?”  This is what is known as a question of epistemology, or, the study of the grounds of knowledge.  Just like everyone else, the Atheist has a burden to prove how he knows what he knows.  He has a problem similar to that of the Confucian.  While Confucianism creates a framework for political stability and economic success, it’s similar to Atheism insofar as neither the Confucian nor the Atheist subscribes to a defined deity.  Such religions leave room for some unrest in society because it begs a question regarding authority.  The rule is that, eventually, these religions must succumb to cyclical reasoning.  The Atheist, like the Confucian, knows what he knows merely because he claims to know it.

The First to Ask It

The question has been posed for centuries, and no one has been able to answer it.  According to the Oxford Dictionary of World Religions, while it may be philosophical and distinguishable from western religions, “Confucianism is a religion.”  The essential literature of this religion includes the Analects of Confucius, the Great Learning, and the Doctrine of the Mean.  The name of the religion comes from the founder, Confucius, whose name means roughly “Our Master.”  Confucianism and Atheism, although similar, are not identical.  But the narrow problem of ultimate authority for the Atheist is present in the eastern religions.

Having lived circa 551-479 B.C., Confucius was a contemporary of the Greek poet Pindar, the playwright Aeschylus, and the philosopher Heraclitus.  Confucius gives practical teachings on worldly wisdom, including reciprocity, humaneness, and knowledge.  Occasionally, he encourages obedience to the will of “heaven,” along with respect for religious rites.  But he remains largely agnostic regarding a deity.[i]

Shall I teach you what it means to know something?  When you know, to know you know.  When you don’t know, to know you don’t know.  That’s what knowing is. – Confucius


For example, in The Analects, a pupil is told that the single word capable of guiding a person’s conduct throughout life is “reciprocity”—“What you do not want others to do to you, do not do to others.”[ii]  On government, Confucius says, “Conduct government in accordance with virtue, and it will be like the North Star standing in its place, with all the other stars paying court to it.”[iii]  The Doctrine of the Mean continues on this theme, attempting to explain how to know what is proper conduct.  It says, “What Heaven has conferred is called ‘The Nature’; an accordance with this nature is called ‘The Path of Duty’; the regulation of this path is called ‘Instruction.’”[iv]  This is the Doctrine of the Mean, the proportion of the universe, where man must act accordingly, adhering to “Instruction.”

On the one hand, Confucianism has been key to the success of Chinese civilization.  These good-natured lessons helped China strive in antiquity.  The reign of Chairman Mao then caused immense failure under the Cultural Revolution as he ordered his Red Guards to “Smash the Four Olds”: old customs, old culture, old habits, and old ideas.  Hundreds of temples were destroyed.  Economic failure under the Communists caused turmoil.  Confucianism was nearly lost.[v]  Today, a Confucian Renaissance is trending.  Chinese President Xi Jinping often cites the “brilliant insights” of Confucius to explain his own political and social philosophy.[vi]  Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Singapore are following China up the road of the “Confucian Ethic.”  Comparisons are being made to the “Protestant Ethic” that Max Weber postulated as being responsible for the rise of Capitalism among westerners.[vii]

On the other hand, while political and economic questions are being answered by this return to Confucian values, other questions remain.  Confucius once said, “Shall I teach you what it means to know something?  When you know, to know you know.  When you don’t know, to know you don’t know.  That’s what knowing is.”[viii]  Here, he explains what knowing is, but avoids answering the question of how he knows what he knows.  For the Confucian, this is impossible to answer because his pillars of faith rest on assumptions.

This epistemological question was eventually addressed, though still unanswered, when Confucianism evolved into Taoism.  Lao Tsu, meaning roughly “Old Master,” was a contemporary of Confucius, and the founder of Taoism.[ix]  “Those who know are not learned,” says Lao Tsu.[x]  The Taoist acknowledges that, under his worldview, nothing can be known.

Like the Atheist, the Taoist does not offer answers, but asks new questions.  In the Book of Zhuangzi, one man asks a second if he knows what all things agree in calling right.  The second man asks how he could know that.  The first man then asks if he knows that he doesn’t know it.  The second asks again how he could know that.  It is then asked if things know nothing.  The second man concludes, “How would I know that?  However, suppose I try saying something.  What way do I have of knowing that if I say I know something I don’t really not know it?  Or what way do I have of knowing that if I say I don’t know something I don’t really in fact know it?”[xi]

Religions without deities do not know how they know what they know.  “The way I see it,” Zhuangzi writes, “the rules of benevolence and righteousness and the paths of right and wrong are all hopelessly snarled and jumbled.”[xii]  In short, those without a deity become helpless in their search for truth.

A Comparative Religious Dilemma

The Atheist is stuck in the same dilemma as the Confucian and the Taoist.  The Atheist says that he does not need God to know to obey the Golden Rule, that he does not need God to treat others well, and that he does not need God to have knowledge.  However, like the Confucian, the Atheist runs into trouble when trying to answer how he knows what he knows.  Just like the Confucian, the Christian, or anyone else, he has a burden to prove how he knows what he knows.  In the end, everyone must rest on faith.

What way do I have of knowing that if I say I know something I don’t really not know it?  Or what way do I have of knowing that if I say I don’t know something I don’t really in fact know it? – A Taoist Conundrum


Any adherent to a religion or philosophy that lacks a deity must ultimately admit that he does not know what he knows.  The Confucian broaches this limitation.  The Taoist embraces it, and knows that he doesn’t know it.  However, when today’s Atheist is faced with epistemology, he acts as if he does know.  The Atheist must end his epistemological argument with a leap of faith.

So, while the eastern religious traditions evolved from promoting human knowledge to admitting that human’s are incapable of knowing anything, the Atheist remains young and naïve because he has yet to admit his limitations.  These are the shadows of truth that the Taoist has the courage to admit.  The Atheist has yet to reach that level of honesty, and he has failed to meet the burden of proving how he knows what he knows.


Why It Cannot Be Answered

The question of how one can know what he knows cannot be answered for the Atheist because there are three basic dilemmas concerning Atheism.  Protagoras of Abdera, Xenophanes of Colophon, and Gorgias of Leontini discovered these dilemmas, sometimes by accident, in the 5th century B.C.  The three dilemmas are: (1) If man is the measure of all things, then whom do we follow when men disagree?  (2) If the only thing we can prove is that nothing can be proven, then how do we trust in logic?  Finally, (3) if it can be proven that nothing exists, then what is the meaning of life?

Protagoras, the Atheist of Abdera

Born in the city of Abdera in Northern Greece on the coast of the Aegean Sea, it was Protagoras who originally coined the statement, “Man is the measure of all things.”[xiii]  This simple statement is the nucleus of the Atheist worldview, and it begins to collapse the moment when two people begin to argue.  For example, personal worldviews are always subject to change.  It was Heraclitus who stated that the world, people, and reality are constantly changing, showing the instability of man.[xiv]  It was Parmenides who believed that nothing ever changes, and that life has no beginning and no end.[xv]  Finally, it was Xenophanes who believed in one God who is bodiless, invisible, and all-powerful.[xvi]  Here are the beliefs of three men, each of whom place themselves as the measure of all things, including Xenophanes, whose philosophical musings were simply based on his personal opinions.  This dilemma necessarily leads to a falsity somewhere, there being no absolute consistency, but only sheer guesswork.  With Protagoras as our starting point, we find the first Atheist dilemma: If man is the measure of all things, then no things are knowable.

Xenophanes, the Skeptic of Colophon

Xenophanes was born around the year 560 B.C. in the ancient city of Colophon, about 15 miles northwest of Ephesus in modern-day Turkey, on the eastern coast of the Aegean Sea.  Presumably, he was exiled from his hometown during a Persian invasion circa 546 B.C.  After moving to Sicily, he traveled throughout the Mediterranean for the majority of his long life, but settled in the southern Italian city of Elea.  Although his credit with founding what is called the Eleatic school of philosophy is debated, it is in this city where the derivation of the name of the school is found.

He often criticized the gods of Homer and Hesiod, believing them to be evil man-made myths.  It is suggested by his remaining manuscripts that he was actually a monotheist and a great influence on Parmenides and Zeno, both of whom would make names for themselves as influential philosophers.  Moreover, Xenophanes recognized the limitations of man’s mind, believing that nothing may truly be known.  He wrote that there had never been nor would there ever be anyone who can know the truth about whether God exists.  And that even if someone should make a good case on the matter, “still he himself would not know it.  But belief occurs in all matters.”[xvii]

Here, a distinction is made between knowing and happening to guess correctly.  However, if Xenophanes was right, then Xenophanes was wrong.  That is because, if nothing can be truly known, then that statement may be incorrect.  He is paradoxically correct on the matter, and we can “prove” it.  It is the second Atheist dilemma, and it is a two-prong problem:

(1) The Atheist can prove that he knows nothing, and

(2) Logic then paradoxically proves itself to be unproven.

For the Atheist, this shows how, regardless of what the Atheist says is known or unknown, in reality, he knows nothing.  He is merely betting his life on that which is unknown—betting his life on a belief—and living by faith.

Gorgias, the Sly Sicilian

The third Atheist dilemma is inspired initially by the Sophist Gorgias, and it is the most fun to ponder.  He was born in a then-Greek-Sicilian town called Leontini, which was located about 20 miles northwest of Syracuse.  Like most of the Sophists, he traveled abroad, and he even debated with Socrates.  Gorgias reflected further than anyone else on the irony of logic.  While Xenophanes proved that nothing could be proven, Gorgias proved that nothing could even exist.  In the dialogue that Plato named after this Sophist, Gorgias does seem to be of the opinion that men consist of a body and a soul.[xviii]  However, Gorgias is famous for constructing an interesting idea that proves that nothing exists.  He stated that “Beings” could be divided into only two categories: singular bodies and multiple bodies.  He then noted that:

  • Any multiple body may be divided into singulars, and
  • Any singular may be severed into multiples.

This is where a problem arises because, if multiples are divisible and singulars are severable, then there are no absolute singulars.  Without singulars, multiples cannot exist.[xix]  In other words, because singulars can always be severed, and because multiples cannot exist without singulars, then there is no such thing as a single solitary particle.  Logically, we have just seen how nothing actually exists.  The Atheist is then left alone to answer how there could be meaning in a world that does not exist.

Some philosophers did not like this proposition very much.  Leucippus and Democritus believed that there must be such a singular body in existence, a thing that could not be severed, seen, or observed by humans.  They called this body the “atom,” which comes from the Greek meaning “indivisible.”[xx]


Ironic Knowledge (Or, How We Might Know What We Might Know)

Here is an interesting dilemma, where, on the one hand, Gorgias inferred that there is no such thing as a singular.  On the other hand, the atomists believed that there was in fact a singular.  At the same time, Protagoras believed that man was the measure of all things, which gives rise to yet another problem, because, if each of these men are the measure of all things, Protagoras’ logic collapses.

Furthermore, while Gorgias was proving that nothing exists, Xenophanes was proving that nothing could be proven.  We can “prove” that it is impossible to prove anything exists, and we can “prove” that it is impossible to prove that nothing exists.  Xenophanes and Gorgias argue under the same logic.  Both of them are right, while at least one of them must be wrong, resulting in a contradiction.

This musing makes it difficult for the Atheist to answer the question of how he knows what he knows.  This is why the great question—“how do you know what you know?”—cannot be answered by the Atheist, because logic is very illogical.

This question of epistemology cannot be answered because the laws of logic have limits.  In The Devil’s Dictionary, Ambrose Bierce gives a cynical definition for the word “Logic.”  He writes, “The art of thinking and reasoning in strict accordance with the limitations and incapacities of the human misunderstanding.” For example

  • If sixty men can do a piece of work sixty times faster than one man, and
  • If one man can dig a posthole in sixty seconds, then
  • Sixty men can dig a posthole in one second.

Protagoras believes that man is the measure of all things.  But everyone knows that man is flawed.  Therefore, all things measured by man may be flawed, and Protagoras may have been wrong.  Xenophanes proves that man can only know nothing.  But that “proof” then means that he was wrong.  Gorgias proves that nothing exists.  No wonder I can never find my keys.



[i] Charlotte Allen, Confucius and the Scholars, The Atlantic (Apr. 1999),

[ii] The Analects of Confucius, Book Fifteen, Verse Twenty-Four, (Burton Watson trans., Columbia University Press) (2007).

[iii] Id. at Book 2, Verse 1.

[iv] The Doctrine of the Mean, Chapter 1, (James Legge trans., Dover Publications) (1971).

[v] Evan Osnos, Confucius Comes Home, The New Yorker (Jan. 13, 2014),

[vi] Robert D. Kaplan, Asia’s Rise Is Rooted in Confucian Values, The Wall Street Journal (Feb. 6, 2015),

[vii] Confucius and the Scholars.

[viii] The Analects of Confucius, Book 2, Verse Seventeen.

[ix] Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

[x] Lao Tsu, Tao Te Ching, 83 (Gia-Fu Feng & Jane English trans., Vintage Books) (1989).

[xi] Zhuangzi, Basic Writings, 40-1 (Burton Watson trans., Columbia University Press) (2003).

[xii] Id. at 41.

[xiii] The First Philosophers, 211 (Robin Waterfield trans., Oxford World’s Classics) (2009).

[xiv] Id. at 41.

[xv] Id. at 61.

[xvi] Id. at 26.

[xvii] Id. at 30.

[xviii] Plato, Complete Works, 808 (Donald J. Zeyl trans., Hackett Publishing Co.) (1997).

[xix] The First Philosophers at 232-39.

[xx] See The First Philosophers at 164-193.

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