How should I know

July 2012 Archives

In college, I took quite a few philosophy courses. While they were interesting, by the end of class I usually had a headache and when the lack of sleep kicked in, I would start to question if I actually existed. But one topic that surprisingly we didn't cover (or at least I don't think we did...I may have just forgotten) that someone asked me about is epistemology.

In short, epistemology is the area of philosophy that questions what knowledge is, how it is obtained and questions if a person can actually know anything.

There are three types of knowledge that are typically discussed and it's worth mentioning them before going any further. The knowledge that, knowledge how, and acquaintance-knowledge. For example, respectively, you can know that the grass is green, you know how to make bread and you know your friend.

How is that we know these things? One way is that a person holds a belief. A belief is something someone holds as truth despite it being independent of any fact. Hence, you can believe that 2 + 3 = 6 even though it is 5. 

Typically, people want the knowledge they possess to be truth and not based on belief. Truth, is something that is based in reality or fact and is not classified as false. I'm going to discuss some of the arguments for what is truth but this list is not by any means complete.

Some would argue that if something is custom, it is truth. A good example of this is moral truths; why something is good or bad. Tradition, a similar argument to custom, says that if something has always been done one way then it must be truth. Majority rule theorizes that if a majority of people believe something than it must be truth. I think it is obvious that none of these are very good definitions of truth. Widely held beliefs in science are disproved quite often and different societies have very different customs, traditions and opinions of what is truth. They cannot all be simultaneously truth.

Time has been used as an argument to say that if a belief is not tainted by the passage of time it is truth. Of course, we know that people hold beliefs for centuries that later turn out to be false. An example would be that we disproved that theory that the Earth is flat. However, there are people that still believe that it is.... a good reason beliefs cannot be defined as truths.

Emotions, instinct, hunch, intuition and revelation are all theories with subtle differences but have the same feel to them. One's emotions can give them a false sense of truth. Just because you feel that your race horse is the best doesn't make it so. I think many people would argue that emotions are actually detrimental to truth. Basic instincts tell us when to eat, sleep and drink. So if we have the instinct that we are hungry we believe is so and eat. While that might help us stay alive instinct certainly doesn't help you figure out how to get to work. A hunch is a spontaneous believe of something that doesn't stem from any actual fact. Intuition is similar to a hunch but is a judgement someone makes without concern for the facts. The major distinction between intuition and revelation is that revelations come from a known source... God. Sometimes one of these do lead to truth but that can be attributed to coincidence or someone not realizing the facts that actually lead to the truth. Overall, these theories have the same problem. They can define individual truths but not universal truths.

Naive Realism is a theory of truth that states: if you sense something it must be truth. But there are many things that we cannot see, hear, smell, taste or feel that exist; we can only see a limited range of the electromagnetic spectrum and there are sound waves that exist that we cannot hear.

The pragmatic criterion of truth is the belief that if something works it must be true. While this isn't always the case, we can say if something does not work then we know it is not truth. So there is some merit there.

Lastly, correspondence is the idea that something is truth if the statement accurately describes the object it's referring to. The statement that the sphere is on top of the block is truth if the sphere is indeed on top of the block. I'd say it is the most widely accepted theory of truth, but there is still the need to prove that the statement itself is truth.

Someone might also know something by having some justification for it. A good example would be a person believes that touching a hot stove can result in a burn because in the past they were burned because of this action.

There are many theories of justification, much like those of truth. There are also other ideas on how we know something. Plus there are theories on if someone can know anything and how knowledge is obtained. But I think I'm going to stop here and we can address more of this in a later blog...

My best friend sent me a question a few night ago, "What does mosquito repellent do to keep the things off?" and went on to add,  "its really late for me right now, so forgive the dumb question :-)" Whether or not it's a dumb question is irrelevant because, I didn't know. So, here it is. More than you ever needed to know about mosquitoes and tips on how to avoid them.

I was mildly surprised to learn that mosquitoes are attracted to some people more than others. People with high concentrations of cholesterol and steroids on their skin are more likely to get bit (Don't worry; this doesn't mean that you have high cholesterol. It usually just means your body processes it at a faster rate than average). An increased amount of uric acid, lactic acid or a number of other acids on the skin also makes a person more desirable. Finally, those who exhale more carbon dioxide than average, tend to attract more mosquitoes.

So, the first line of defense is to stop vigorous activity when you are in an area with mosquitoes. You'll breathe heavier and have more acids on your skin from sweating.

Now, let's say you enjoy participating in sports when it's 100 degrees out and you are invited to do so in a place where mosquitoes are flying around. Then what can you do? Break out the bug spray! The most common, is DEET. It comes in a variety of concentrations and the higher the concentration the longer you'll be protected. DEET has a bit of a bad reputation; claims have been made it has caused seizures and even some deaths. There is always a possibility of an allergic reaction but otherwise, proper use of the product has shown to be safe in even young children. By proper use I mean, don't spray in your eyes, mouth or ears. Only spray on clothes and exposed skin, use only as needed and take a shower once back inside (for further information, check the product's label).

As effective as DEET, Picaridin is another option. It's preferred by most, because it doesn't have a strong odor and doesn't have the same sticky feel that DEET does.

Metofluthrin is not applied to the skin. Instead is is used in emanators (devices like the OFF! Clip-On). This is a less messy option that has been shown to be effective.

Chemical IR3535, or better known to the public as Avon Skin-So-Soft is not as effective as DEET but does provide short lived protection (usually less than an hour).

Another more dangerous option is Permethrin. It's a neurotoxin so it's ONLY for use on clothing.

Now let's say you hate the idea of drowning yourself in chemicals every time you want to go out and enjoy a summer's day. There are some alternatives. There are soybean, oil-based products and a variety of other natural oils such as citronella, cedar and peppermint that can protect you. Of the oils, lemon of eucalyptus has been shown to be most effective.

Some studies have shown that mosquitoes don't like the odor of thiamine (B1). A patch was developed to leave the scent of B1 on the skin but there's no solid evidence to show wearing these patches keep the pests at bay.

There are clothes that have repellents right in them and there are traps you can put out for the mosquitoes. Plus if you eliminate their breading grounds (places with stagnate water and high concentrations of wet plant life), they might just go over to your neighbor's yard.

Back to the main question... how do they work? Well, they make you smell and taste bad to the mosquitoes. Which is probably why humans think they have an offensive smell. Let's assume they have a bad taste since testing that is probably dangerous.

So why do we all hate mosquitoes so much? To start, if a lady mosquito chooses to use your blood to produce her eggs, she leaves behind an annoying itch (luckily it only lasts for a few days). Others are allergic to them and wind up with moderate to severe reactions; from large welts lasting for days to the need for a hospital visit. It's pretty well known that mosquitoes spread malaria as well as yellow fever, dengue fever and encephalitis.

But we at least only have the females to worry about, they need the blood for reproduction purposes. The males feed only on nectar.

Their saving grace is that they have a some what important role to play in their ecosystem. They are the food of choice to to a variety of fish and birds and if they were to suddenly go existent, it would take away a major food source of these animals.

If you are unlucky, there are products out there that will ease the itch until it's healed. I personally recommend After Bite, which is what I use and provides relief.

Keep safe out there!
I am a research and design engineer and can program in several different programming languages. I know about natural language processing and artificial intelligence. I have a bachelor's level knowledge of psychology and cognitive science. I can knit and crochet just about any pattern you put in front of me and know way more about various time formats than I ever thought I would need to know. I can tell you most of the plots of Star Trek The Next Generation episodes by the title, and give you the back story of Dr. Who (not that most people would care about the latter two).

But I am not ashamed to admit there are a ton of things I know nothing about. Ask me the dates of any battle in almost any war and I'll stare at you like you have three heads. Or if you asked me about current fashion designers I'd probably hide under my bed. And don't even try to get me to fill in the name of countries on a blank map; I'd just make a fool of myself. But, hopefully this blog will give me the opportunity to fill in those gaps.

One of my favorite shows was Showtime's The Tudors. So let's start with a little history lesson of everyone's royal family...

The Tudor dynasty has arguably given us the modern prototype of royalty. It is Henry VIII that is the most famous of the Tudors. His regime, filled with corruption and scandal, has inspired countless works of art and still inspires authors today. But, this is not about Henry VIII, I know quite a bit about him. But his father, Henry VII, I knew nothing about until now. And it was Henry VII that paved the way for Henry VIII and his children to rule England.

Henry Tudor VII's claim to the throne had little merit. Son to Margret Beaufort, the descendant of the illegitimate child of John of Gaunt, her progeny were never intended to ascend the throne... despite their being legitimized by an Act of Parliament.

Margret saw some hope when the last of the House of Lancaster heirs was killed in battle. She exiled Henry to Brittany, France to be protected. When he was old enough, Henry started to work on his plan to rule England. After one failed attempt on the throne, on August 7, 1485, starting out from Milford Haven, Wales Henry invaded England from the north and the east.

His father, Edmund Tudor was a Welsh man. This gave Henry the support of the Welsh in defeating Richard III at the battle of Bosworth Field. Henry took the throne but he still had to win over the people of England. He quickly went to work, making his way from town to town listening to the people's concerns. While this was a noble thing to do, he didn't take too much time addressing what he learned.

Henry VII was extremely paranoid which was somewhat justified. Not only did he take the throne by force, not by succession which was the custom, he had several others attempt to make claims to the throne. They obviously failed, but he became the first king to feel a true need for a personal body guard. He had very few people he trusted, mainly those who helped him claim the throne, his mother and Uncle Jasper Tudor.

His paranoia is what defined his reign. Every financial decision, he personally audited and signed. Unable to tax the people in any other way than on imports and exports, he abused his power by imposing fines for unlawful acts and strictly enforcing these laws. This is what brought him his fortune. And it was an impressive fortune, some historians estimate it was in the millions. His hoarding of money was further evidence of his insecurity. But his financial policies rid the English royalty of their debts and died the richest king England had ever had.

Henry also very rarely restored or granted nobility status to others and made it illegal for anyone to have people working for them beyond servants for household needs. Everyone under his regime was equal in the eyes of the law and he passed the law that allowed the burning of heretics. He rarely got involved with foreign affairs except to send aid to Brittany, France, who guarded him as a child.

While he rarely built structures, he did build the Lady Chapel in honor of his Uncle and to act as his tomb. Later, it became the Tudor mausoleum where all of the Tudors were laid to rest except Henry VIII. He was a devout pilgrim and donated a statue of himself to Our Lady at Walsingham. But to Henry the church was just another way for him to make money. He abused the fact that when a new bishop arrived at a church, he brought along all church property, trading bishops like baseball cards.

In his later years, his son Arthur was being groomed for the throne. A treaty was signed between Spain and England and Arthur married Catherine of Aragon. Unfortunately, Arthur fell ill and died. It wasn't long till tragedy struck again. King Henry's wife gave birth to a baby girl who died soon after being delivered and a week later his wife died from complications. His daughter Margaret married James IV of Scotland leaving him with only his son Henry VIII. As quickly as possible, Henry VIII was groomed to be King. He would marry his brother's widow after some postponement, likely due to his father's belief that if he had a sexual relationship at such a young age it would bring him bad health to as it did Arthur.

Towards the end of his life, Henry began to fear death. He gave donations to the church on a regular basis in attempts to repent his sins. In his will he requested ten thousand masses to be held in his name and for the donations to continue.
But all of this was just to ensure his route to heaven, which we cannot know if he succeeder. On April 21, 1509, Henry VII died making Henry VIII king. And his story is for another day...
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Nicole Wardle

Nicole Wardle has a Bachelor's degree in Computer Science and Psychology and a master's in Computer Science from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Since graduation, she has been working for Kitware, a local open-source software company, as a research and design engineer. In her spare time, she enjoys writing science fiction, knitting, yoga and volunteers at the Mohawk Hudson Humane Society.

No stranger to research, Nicole completed two theses on Natural Language Processing while at RPI. Now, she is going to put those research skills to the test in order to acquire knowledge about the things she never had time to or even considered learning before. And you will reap all the benefits!

You are invited to suggest topics by emailing her at and leave comments to further explore any topic.