Archive for the ‘Epistemology’ Category

Epistemology, Anxiety, Faith, Sin (pt. 2)

November 20, 2011

Beginnings of an Epistemology:  There should therefore be two stages to developing an epistemology.  First, consider carefully what one can know and how one can know.  Second, consider how one’s own nature can distort this knowledge.  As far as knowledge of the world goes, I would start without wasting much time on theories like the Cartesian evil genius or The Matrix, if only because they are largely non-starters.  Evolutionary theory says that we have the senses we do because they work; they allow us to find food and mates, to avoid predators and other threats, and in general tell us about the world.  They don’t have to be perfect to do this job; in fact, we know many creatures that have superior senses.  The classic arguments of skeptical philosophers, like the stick that looks bent in water, are not really problems at all as far as pragmatic, survival-value knowledge of the world goes.  We are material, our senses evolved as part of the material world to know the material world, and in a sense it isn’t really a separation between subject and object here since the material world is reacting physically to the material world.

(The creationist could even admit some of this; after all, Adam was created from the earth, so again Adam and the world are substantially similar and the physical senses are part of the physical world.)

While some philosophers have worried about the problems of knowledge of the physical, the real problems seem to stem from knowledge of the metaphysical.  Even if, as Plato said, we can’t know the physical world because it’s always changing, we can know it well enough.  But what about the principles on which we depend for our scientific activity, or just our reasoning?  What about causality, or object permanence?  Hume said that these are abstractions from our sense data and hence are imperfect.  Therefore, we should only assume them as far as we need to.  Kant wanted certainty, and therefore concluded that the laws of nature were like the laws of logic:  principles that are necessary for our thinking of the world.  Because we (or any rational finite being) must perceive reality in this way, the laws of nature are just as universal as the laws of logic.  Hamann said that if knowledge is that, then it is empty; for it to be knowledge of the actual physical world it has to come from outside us.  But he would go on to say that if we let it, the world will disclose itself to us; so the principles of causality and so on are in fact true of the world as it is.  (At least, I think Hamann would say this; he is considered the most obscure writer in the German language, and that is saying a lot!  Even Kant found Hamann a hard read.)

What can we know, then, about the world, besides what we immediately experience?  On the surface, the pragmatic tests would seem to be pretty good.  If I can make predictions based on my assumptions that this action will cause that reaction, that my test tube won’t disappear when I turn my back and so on, then principles of causality, object permanence and so on seem to be born out.  True, they are creations of our mind, above and beyond the immediate sensations; but our minds are largely our brains, and our brains are also physical objects which evolved/were created to understand and react to the world, so it is reasonable to conclude that we wouldn’t have these concepts if there weren’t something in the world that made the suitable impact on us.  Eyes exist because there is light and physical objects that make something like eyes useful ways to perceive them.  Brains exist because the world does in fact follow rational patterns that can be discerned, rational principles that can be inferred and which will prove useful and effective.  But Hume is right about one thing:  this cannot be the same sort of certainty that we see in logic or math.  Just as our physical sensations, perceptions and conclusions from these can be mistaken, so too our metaphysical reasoning can be mistaken.  At some point, we have to simply accept that the evidence is good enough.

That may be the problem with so much scientific debate these days, and where the second phase of an epistemology needs to begin:  Aside from the inexactness and limitations of our finite senses and finite minds, what other sources of error exist?  And, given our limitations and any other sources of error, what can we do to avoid or correct error?

To be continued…..