Steak and Certainty

A few years ago, my mind was blown. I was thinking about food. Steak, in particular. It was well past midnight, and I was lying in bed, worrying about an idea. I’d been on a quest to find absolute certainty. And I found it; logical necessity provided a bedrock for my worldview. I had certain knowledge about a number things, all of which were ultimately grounded in logical necessity.

And then it happened: I thought of a distressing sentence which ultimately forced me to expand my worldview:

“I know that I taste steak.”

Sure, it appears innocuous, but when you unpack it, this is a beast of a sentence. Before I explain why, let’s take some simple examples of true sentences. Consider the following:

a) “Something exists.”

This is necessarily true. If nothing existed, then neither would that sentence – and nothing would be able to speak, write, or read it aloud. We might not know what “something” is, but it is certainly something, even if it’s illusory. If anything is being experienced, there cannot be only nothing; this is a logical necessity.

b) “There is no square circle.”

This is necessarily true, by virtue of what we mean by the terms. Being a “square” is mutually exclusive with being a “circle”. Something cannot have four 90-degree corners and no corners at the same time; again, this is logical necessity.

c) “Humans employ scarce means to satisfy their highest-valued ends first.”

This is also true, and it’s the basis for sound economic theory. The certainty is discovered when we unpack the concepts of “action”, “scarcity”, and “value”.

The common theme in all these sentences is logical necessity. We cannot imagine a universe where only nothing existed. If nothing existed, then it wouldn’t be a universe. We cannot imagine any universe where a square was circular. If it’s circular, it ain’t a square. And we cannot imagine a universe where humans could satisfy their lower-valued ends prior to their highest-valued ends – what we mean by “highest-valued ends” is that they get satisfied first.

Now, revisit the devilish sentence I thought of while in bed:

“I know that I taste steak.”

Is this certainly true, and if so, is it necessarily true? Well, given my perspective, I can be absolutely certain of whether or not its true; if I taste it, I know that I taste it. I am 100% sure of the fact.

But how?

It is not a logical necessity. I can imagine a universe where the sentence “I know that I taste steak” is false – the speaker would simply not be tasting steak. No contradictions involved. There’s no terminological necessity – my tasting steak is not bound up in the definition of what “I” am. There’s certainly no economic law which necessitates my tasting steak. So what’s going on?

Well, as unpleasant as it sounds, I must be able to gain certain knowledge by feeling. By simply being aware of my feelings, I can know whether or not “I taste steak” is true.

Notice, this doesn’t even require “steak” to be an objective thing. Perhaps no metaphysical “steaks” exist. It doesn’t matter. The claim isn’t, “The cause of my tasting steak is the ingestion of it.” Rather, simply that I taste it, regardless of the cause. It could be a delicious hallucination, and it wouldn’t change the truth of the feeling.

So we are forced to conclude: not all knowledge is logically necessary. Some truths can be known through simple awareness. Somehow, the mind has the capacity for direct, non-verbal, perfect insight into the accuracy of certain propositions. By feeling. If that isn’t shocking to you, then you’re significantly more normal than I am.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying that logic doesn’t apply to these propositions. Or that somehow, some truths can get around logical necessity. To the contrary: the laws of identity and non-contradiction still apply. I cannot somehow “taste steak and not taste steak” at the same time. Rather, I’m saying there’s a realm of knowledge regarding internal experience which the human mind has perfect insight into. You can discover (some) absolute truth by introspection.

This realization didn’t end with steak. I wrestled with it for months – and still doubted the role of feelings in creating an accurate worldview. Then, the most dramatic of things happened: I fell in love, and I knew it.

“But how can I know such a thing?” I asked myself.

“I just know it. I feel it, and I know I feel it.” I answered.

What a preposterous conclusion for a philosopher! But alas, love forced me to expand my worldview, in more ways than one.