Why Epistemology Matters

These days, it seems everyone should study philosophy.  Consider this article.  It discusses the social and political implications of the victory of relativism.  Humans run this planet because we are better able to organize ourselves than can any other species; and we are losing that ability.  Our ability to lie so effectively that even the liars are suckered is outrunning not only our ability to sift out the truth, but even our interest in doing so.

Sixteen years ago, I began to reevaluate my own appraisal of my chosen profession.  I have a Ph.D. in Philosophical Theology, which was an interdisciplinary program combining Philosophy and Religious Studies.  Before that I earned a M.Div. with a concentration in Philosophy, and before that a B.A. in Philosophy with enough Religion courses to qualify for a double major if I’d wanted to.  I’ve been working the seam between Philosophy and Religion for longer than many of my students have been alive.  Arguably, I’ve been doing it since I read Walden when I was fourteen years old.  I always thought it was important for someone to do it.  I could see that most of the people around me were unhappy with the lives they were living, or were living lives that others had lived already and found unsatisfying, so the rest maybe just weren’t unhappy yet.  But I also thought, as almost everyone around me said, that philosophy was too hard and strange for most people, so it would be up to the few of us to sort this out and then teach it to others.  Just as hardly anyone really understands calculus, but our modern world couldn’t exist without it, I thought some small subgroup of academics were all that were necessary to philosophize for the rest.  And furthermore, I figured that if most people ignored us, that would be okay too; they’d muddle along, we’d try to influence things around the edges by teaching a few future politicians and legal scholars a little morality before they set out shaping the world.

In 2001, I realized how dangerous that had become.  Everyone thought the “important” things to study in school were the things that could make you rich:  business, accounting, engineering, law and medicine, maybe sports and a few others.  Philosophy, religion, humanities, history—- who needs them?  But no one is flying planes into buildings because of a disagreement over the Pythagorean Theorem or the relative merits of whole-life vs. term-life insurance or even over how to fight cancer.  They are committing acts of mass murder because they have given up on the possibility of rationally defending their own world-view.  They have given up on logic and observation leading us to a shared sense of reality, within which we could solve problems that affect us all.  They have given up on trying to understand people who disagree with them or who have different values, who love and fear different things.  The religious fundamentalist isn’t dangerous because he is religious, any more than the atheist is dangerous because she isn’t.  What is dangerous is the person who resorts to force to impose his or her standards on another, or on a group, without understanding their views.  Such a person generally hasn’t even understood his or her own views.   “Those who know only one religion know none,”  said Max Müller, and it is true:  to understand anything, you have to have some sort of comparison.  To understand your own beliefs, you have to briefly step outside them and look at them from another angle; that’s what analysis and reflection are.  So the fundamentalist usually, probably always has a truncated view of his or her own faith, whether it’s the religious fanatic or the Communist fanatic or the racist or some other ideology.  They don’t understand others or even themselves, but they’ll fight and maybe kill to defend their mistakes from any real and imagined threats.

Through 2015, I mostly believed that greater understanding could lead, if not to consensus, at least to mutual tolerance and agreement on rules of engagement.  That was the motivation behind this book.  In 2002, the economy of the nation was sliding towards recession, and there was a debate how to respond.  One side said that the best way to stimulate and repair the economy after the 2008 crash was to increase aid to the poor, such as food stamps.  That would undoubtedly have worked, since poor people spend what they get right away—they have to, they’re poor, they have debts and bills and mouths to feed.  Rich people don’t need more money, by definition, so when they get more money they are less likely to immediately stimulate the economy by spending it.  They might invest it in new businesses, but more likely they’ll squirrel it away in tax havens—-they already have thriving businesses, remember: they’re rich.  Middle-class people will save a little, pay down debts, maybe finally open that small business they’ve always wanted to.  So, practically speaking, according to the vast majority of economists, Bush should have pushed for a one-time bonus to the food stamp program, together with a modest but noticeable rebate in taxes for the poor and middle classes, leaving the rich alone.  But this suggestion was met with seeming moral outrage.  How could you punish the hard-working middle class by rewarding poor people?  (The implication was that if they’re poor, they don’t work hard enough; anyone who thinks that has never done real manual labor.)  How could you punish the rich for working hard and being smart?  (The implication here is that everyone who is rich must have worked hard and be really smart; I’ve met too many rich people to believe that.)  So I set out, in this book, to examine how we came to have such different moral judgements about how we share the profits of our joint economic activities as a nation.  My hope was that if people could see that the other side was not evil or lazy, but just had different moral and practical assumptions, maybe some sort of conversation would be possible.

What I’ve seen since that book was published is nothing short of epistemological genocide, a wholesale annihilation of truth.  Cardinal Ratzinger once complained about a “dictatorship of relativism,” but today we have something perhaps even worse:  sheer anarchy.  We live in the epistemological version of a Hobbesian state of nature, with war of each truth against all others, and the life of every truth is nasty, brutish and short.  Perhaps once there was a dictatorship, imposing mutual tolerance and a cease-fire at the expense of rejecting the possibility that any truth could be real; but in these days there is no king and everyone does what is right in his or her own eyes (Judges 21:25).  And like that Biblical story of anarchy, rape and murder, the epistemological breakdown leads to political chaos and moral collapse that starts to make a Hobbesian totalitarianism seem almost preferable, or at least acceptable.  Hence, in 2016, the yearning for a “strong man” who would impose his view of reality on everyone else and give us order.(1)    But historically, dictatorships never end well for the dictated to.  Hobbesian monarchism gave way to Lockean representative democracy, because politically speaking a participatory government that depends on mutual discussion and mutual agreement to at least fight according to non-lethal political means rather than guns is more stable than a totalitarianism that leaves dissenters no option but violence.

Democracy dies when the majority choose to opt out; the society becomes an oligarchy, a ruling elite of actual voters and those who serve them dominating the nonparticipants.  Something similar happens in the realm of epistemology.  When the majority decide it is too hard to figure out what is true or false, they allow others to dictate reality.  Once you’ve handed your eyes over to someone else who tells you where to look and what to see, and handed your brain over to others who tell you what to think and your heart over to others who tell you what to feel, you are a slave, no matter how badass you feel because your masters tell you you’re tough and strong and better than those others.  And that is why epistemology matters, for everyone, and why every single individual citizen needs to learn some philosophy.  We need to learn enough to not just accept, but understand this:

  1.  Truth exists.  Some things are real
  2. Truth matters.
  3. Truth is hard to find but it’s worth the effort.
  4. You will never have all the truth; it’s too big for one person to see all at once.  But you can at least see the side that’s facing you.
  5. Everyone can, with effort and discussion, figure out more truth, by hearing from people who have other perspectives.
  6. When you don’t know, sometimes it’s okay to withhold judgement.
  7. When you can’t wait for certainty, you may have to choose without being certain.  If you’ve headed out on the wrong direction, though, you can still realize this and turn around.
  8. It takes humility to admit when you might be wrong.  It takes courage to stand your ground when you might be right.  Therefore, you need to be both brave and humble to find any truth in this life.

I think everything else—-Aristotle vs. Plato, Locke vs. Descartes, and all the other epistemological and ethical debates of philosophers through the ages—-are less important than these few, simple principles.  And maybe this list is not complete (I’d be breaking my own list if I insisted it was).  If you have some others, or think any of these is wrong, let’s discuss it like reasonable people.  But the important point, which I will not yield, is this:  You may not know much about Plato or Aristotle or Kant, and get by just fine; but you need to know something like these principles here to function as a citizen, or even as a rational being.  Otherwise, you’re liable to end up cowering in your basement waiting for the mythical hordes of antifa marauders or Mexican rapists or zombies or whatever that someone has invented to keep you terrified—-and submissive.

(1) See this example of how Evangelicals longed for a “strong leader”  See also here

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2 Responses to “Why Epistemology Matters”

  1. Nemo Says:

    almost everyone around me said, that philosophy was too hard and strange for most people,When I was young, I thought philosophy (and psychology and the other humanities) was for those who couldn’t do science. 🙂

    While I share your sentiments, I think the problem is not epistemology per se, it is not a lack of understanding, but a lack of will to understand. IOW, we don’t want to understand different and opposite view points. To quote Cato the Elder, “It is hard to reason with the stomach which has no ears to hear”.

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