General Thoughts on Epistemology I: A (Mostly) Platitudinous Introduction

The School of Athens

Everything I would like to discuss in the realm of epistemology may require a little background, especially for those who are new to this area of study. In addition, it was drilled into my brain that I ought to prove that I know a little bit about something before I enter the discussion, so it is perfectly permissible for the reader to see this as part of my self-consciousness made real. What follows is some mildly chronological context, sprinkled with some arguments and scare-quotes, all communicated a bit lazily.

Epistemology is supposed to be the study of knowledge and how we know. It is pretty simple as far as the general definition goes, but one will soon realize upon closer examination that writers have been complicating this area of study for years. The obvious pattern to follow through history is the longstanding debate between rationalists and empiricists, and less obviously, the debate between rationalists who tend to overcomplicate and empiricists who come dangerously close to (if not logically imply) that we cannot know anything at all. Here is a machine-gun history of epistemology:

Plato thinks that everything in the living world is a reflection of underlying reality, called the forms, with which we hang when our souls enter the land of the dead; he also “invents” the idea of “Justified True Belief” as the definition of knowledge.

Aristotle, with a slightly more scientific approach, develops his distinction between phainomena (observations as they appear) and endoxa (reasoned opinions about phainomena).

Fast forward about two-thousand years, and we get René Descartes, who coins the phrase, “I think. [Therefore,] I am,” as the first thing we can know with certainty purely through reason. He also attempts to defeat any doubt about our experiences (that we may be dreaming or being fooled by an evil genius) by “proving” that God exists.

John Locke, a British Empiricist during the Enlightenment period, argues that experience is the “basis” for knowledge in opposition to Descartes. His Causal Theory of Perceptions puts focus on the interaction between the world, our perceptual organs, and our minds.

David Hume, another famous British empiricist expands upon Locke and divides knowledge into two categories: relations of ideas (math/logic) and matters of fact (observation). His skepticism about the external world leads him to conclude that there is no rational justification for the existence of anything, that there is no such thing as “perfect knowledge,” and that metaphysics is stupid.

Hume finds an opponent in Immanuel Kant, who contends that metaphysics is not stupid and that it is possible to “know” things through reason alone. He frames this discussion with his introduction of the analytic-synthetic distinction (which I may explain at a later date). His overarching theory is called transcendental idealism, which postulates that there is a barrier between the mind and the external world created by our perceptions, marking yet another conceptual distinction between phenomenon and noumenon.

The spiritual successor to British empiricism became phenomenalism, which is the view that the existence of physical objects in the external world is not justifiable. According to a phenomenalist, when we speak about physical things we are talking about mere sense-data.

In the early nineteenth century, logical positivism went in a slightly different direction. Logical positivists pushed the verification principle, which states that a proposition is only “meaningful” if it is verifiable—can be proven true or false. A.J. Ayer defends this theory famously in his twentieth century work, Language, Truth, and Logic.

In 1963, Edward Gettier introduced a problem (previously raised by Bertrand Russell in 1912) with the “Justified True Belief” model of knowledge, explaining how a belief could be both justified and true but not be something that we would consider knowledge. The problem occurs when a person’s justified belief is coincidentally true, not by the original justification, but for different reasons. (I find fault with Gettier’s original problem, but there are many other examples that may or may not succeed.)

We also get some critical, agnostic thinkers, like Barry Stroud, who believe that none of the positive theories from these philosophers or movements are correct about epistemology, and we still haven’t solved the problem that Descartes elucidates—that we have no way of knowing if our experiences are real or just a dream.

Ayn Rand’s Objectivism similarly rejects the views of most mainstream philosophers like Hume and Kant, but instead of stopping at criticism, presents a fairly straight-forward way of defining knowledge and its processes. On the basis that reality exists self-evidently, Rand claims that knowledge is a conceptual organization of our perceptions of that reality. She defends the simple assumptions that we tend to accept about knowledge, but goes into detail in providing her framework for how it works. Unfortunately, she has trouble building a bridge between her philosophy and the established bodies of work, and there are a lot of holes that remain unfilled.

The most contemporary philosophers have the fortune of instant access to a wealth of present-day knowledge obtained via rapid advances in science and technology. Modern philosophers, like Daniel Dennett, now examine the nature of the human mind from a more scientific perspective in order to learn more about “knowledge” (or better yet, how we interact with the external world), as opposed to knowledge in and of itself. Now epistemological theories look like this.

So begins my foray into a somewhat outdated field in order to explain some things that the reader may already realize, but may not often think about.

My first order of business is to communicate this: the term “perfect knowledge” is unintelligible.

My second order of business will be to write the next post.

Realists and Idealists

Realists VS Idealists

Realists VS Idealists (Photo credit: Emilie Ogez)

At some point in time you have probably been taught that there is a difference between a realist and an idealist. There are two chief understandings of this perceived dichotomy. The common usage is a description of human behavior, often seen an explanation for political decisions. This is dependent upon the second philosophical usage, however, which largely denotes an epistemic stance. My argument is that the philosophical version is a false dichotomy, and as a result, the common version is not a very useful mental construct.

Usually idealists are understood to take action based upon what they want to see as an ideal theoretical end. Sometimes we call people “idealists” when we observe that they think big without adequately taking into account the steps needed to achieve their goals. They are dreamers and eternal optimists.

Realists, on the other hand, are thought to be more pragmatic in their approach. They tend to be more pessimistic about the world and what can be accomplished, but they are coincidentally (if not causally) more often correct and may even live longer.  Realists supposedly see the world as it is, and they act more pragmatically without looking outside of their personal sphere to accomplish lofty, theoretical goals.

In a philosophical context, the respective meanings are different but related. In one sense, realism and idealism can be understood as metaphysical interpretations that may apply to any field of philosophy. Within every interpretation is a claim about the existence of something and to what degree it exists independent of our knowledge. Therefore the discussion is rooted in the most primary forms of philosophy: metaphysics and epistemology.

Generic Realism goes something like this: “ab, and c and so on exist, and the fact that they exist and have properties such as F-nessG-ness, and H-ness is (apart from mundane empirical dependencies of the sort sometimes encountered in everyday life) independent of anyone’s beliefs, linguistic practices, conceptual schemes, and so on.” So a theory of epistemological realism might make the claim that all things we know are generically real. This theory would be a subcategory of objectivism.

The theories in opposition to epistemological realism, labeled non-realist, are numerous. But the most widely referenced is—you guessed it—epistemological idealism. Plato was one of the first epistemic idealists, with his cave analogy and his famous theory of the forms. His key belief was that knowledge consists of “memories” that your “soul” recalls from its time in the underworld hanging out with the forms (which are supposedly perfect versions of all the “imperfect” knowledge we gather in the human world).

A more representative picture of current philosophical idealism can be seen in German idealists like Kant and Hegel, who are among the most influential. Kant posits that all we are capable of observing is the sense data we obtain through our experiences, and therefore, knowledge relies on a framework of universal, a priori truths in the human mind (like the logical implications of space and time) in order to understand our experiences. He divides these two understandings into two realms: the phenomenal (experiential) and the noumenal (transcendental).

Hegel accepts Kant’s belief that knowledge begins with our experiences, but he rejects the idea that we can know anything transcendental. He argues that we can only be skeptical of such things. Although, he does agree that our experiences are mediated through the mind.

Part of the reason I say what follows is because I know there will be no recourse from dead men: most of these epistemological debates are just an intellectual pissing match. Their differences about the nature of knowledge are essentially unessential, and only the things they agree upon, for the most part, are important. Realists and the various idealists all agree that we have experiences by way of the senses, that we analyze them with our brains, and by that general process we form “knowledge” (whatever its nature may be). Most of the disagreement results from a failure to clearly define knowledge and its characteristics. I suppose this makes me a semi-quietist.

Ultimately, generic epistemic realism and most forms of idealism are not actually in conflict. It may be that Kant’s framework of understanding is valid—that all we observe is sense data and that it is meaningful to (at least) distinguish between physical and nonphysical things. Perhaps Hegel is right that we should be skeptical about nonphysical things. In the end, it serves no purpose.

What idealists have mostly done is to bicker about the degree to which realism can(not) be proven. But they fail to deny (or sometimes even to observe) that realism must be assumed in the actions of every day life. Imagine living a life full of the worry that things will spontaneously phase out of existence of you pay them no attention. Along a similar line of thought, we make use of “transcendental” or metaphysical concepts all the time. We can disregard their idealistic origin should we so choose, but we must recognize their utility, for example, when we employ mathematics, geometry, and calculus to solve real-world problems.

The problem with this philosophical dichotomy is similar to its colloquial cousin. At most, “realist” and “idealist” could be used as labels for people who actually fit their narrow description. Almost all people, however, operate according to the simple, functional framework that I just explained and thus, would not be categorized as such. Even those who use them regularly typically concede that the dichotomy should be understood in terms of a scale, in which an individual may favor one disposition over the other.

This practice, even with the concession, is still dangerous because it pigeon-holes people into mental structures that limit their capabilities. If a person thinks he or she is predisposed to acting on ideals, then it will likely become a self-fulfilling prophecy, and that person may refuse to take certain realistic issues into account when it would not be difficult to otherwise. And the related outcome is true of people who think that they are “realists.”

The important thing for people to recognize is that there is no real utility to the mutual exclusivity between colloquial realism and idealism. They should strive to make use of both in concert, as our brains already do functionally according to a more accurate conceptual understanding.

Moral Sentimentalism and Moral Rationalism

Moral Sentimentalism and Moral Rationalism are two epistemological theories of morality—how we know what is right and wrong. Sentimentalists like Francis Hutcheson, David Hume, and Adam Smith have argued that a knowledge of morality arises from our senses. This has been described as an emotional basis and similar to the way we understand beauty. Rationalists like Immanuel Kant and Samuel Clarke have argued that we gain knowledge of morality from rational thought. In this view, the way we understand morality would be similar to the way we understand mathematics. Although this is a massive subject, I will do my best to reduce it to the essentials in order to explain why this is a false dichotomy and how we can better understand what happens when we make moral judgements.

Math is beautiful

Math is beautiful (Photo credit: quinn.anya)

Prof. Michael B. Gill from the University of Arizona tells us that the two positions, taken as a whole, are incompatible. The standard rationalist view holds that moral truths are necessary truths. They must be true in all possible worlds (alternate realities) in which they exist like “2+2=4.” If so, then judgements of morality are nothing like aesthetic judgements because we can imagine possible worlds in which one thing is beautiful and other possible worlds in which it is not. Conversely, sentimentalists hold that believing something to be beautiful and having a favorable feeling towards it are identical (or at least necessarily connected). In the same way, holding a moral belief toward a given action would be identical to having some feeling regarding that action. If this is the case, then there can be no analogy between morality and mathematics because math doesn’t address how we feel.

Gill rejects the idea that Sentimentalism and Rationalism are mutually-exclusive. I agree. I think it is primarily because of a failure in the discussion to connect on an epistemological level. There should be a number of premises that must be examined about how we know things in-general before we talk about morality. A theory that says we can know nothing through sentiment would eliminate sentimentalism completely, while a theory that says we do not use rational thought in obtaining knowledge would eliminate moral rationalism. Instead of “knowledge,” which serves to confuse the discussion, I think it is more useful to use “judgement.” It is much more intricate than this, but for my purposes, I will have to couch most of the epistemological discourse.

I think that both camps attempt to address different aspects of morality that are explained more clearly in a psychological context. Jonathan Haidt talks about this in the first part of his book, Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion. His belief is that moral “intuitions” come first and “strategic reasoning” comes second. It is usually the case that people have an initial unconscious reaction to a moral situation first, and then they rationalize it.

Does this mean that emotion serves as the basis for moral judgement? Prof. Jesse Prinz from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill thinks so. In fact, he argues, as Hume did, that a judgement that something is wrong is the same thing as having a negative sentiment towards it. He goes on to explain how emotion is both necessary and sufficient in order to make a moral judgement. There are studies that show certain areas of the brain which indicate emotion light up when people make moral judgements. These studies reveal that different emotions external to the moral dilemma affect the way we make judgements. The data also suggests that there is a correlation between a lack of emotion and an inability to draw a distinction between morality and mere convention in psychopathic subjects.

A joint study involving scholars from Harvard, Tufts, and UMBC remarks that the data is simply not enough to conclude that emotion is necessary and sufficient in order to make a moral judgement. More specifically, it does not provide a precise enough understanding of the role that emotion plays in judgement. Neuroimaging data only shows correlation between emotion and moral judgement but not causation. The effect of unrelated emotional inputs is not just limited to moral judgement. The research on psychopathic behavior shows in actuality that many still make the morality/conventionality distinction, only less often than normal subjects, but certainly not enough to confirm Prinz’s conclusion.

If one goal of moral judgement is to determine what is true, shouldn’t there be a key role for reason? The scholars from the joint study point towards an unconscious process that includes “causal-intentional representations,” which I take to be a form of reasoning. After all, a moral judgement is not meant to be a subjective statement. It is a statement that judges how things ought to be, suggesting that there should be a correct and objective answer. So looking at reason as opposed to “emotion” might not be the best way to describe what is happening.

Haidt says that there is a divide between two main types of cognition regarding morality: intuition (in place of emotion) and reasoning. He believes that intuitions come first and reasoning second, so he draws from this that Hume was right that passions (intuitions) “trump” reason. Emotions to him are just another form of cognition—information processing, and they should be categorized in a somewhat different way than they have been before. He also retains the idea that conscious reasoning is still an important aspect of moral judgment. Ultimately, I think we would both agree that the standard sentimentalist/rationalist dichotomy is faulty.

If Hume and Haidt are merely pointing out what happens—that people usually intuit first—then the claim is unsurprising and uncontroversial. If the claim is about what is most important, however, his conclusion about Hume is a bit odd. The problem, among other things, would be that it wouldn’t follow that Hume is correct. Just because people intuit first and reason consciously afterward does not mean that intuitions are necessarily more important—it only means that they happen first. From this interpretation, the two don’t appear to give any credence to the idea that perhaps what is most important is what is most effective. It also leads me to believe that Haidt would have to assume intuition and judgment are the same thing (what Hume argues) and disregard the notion that intuition could be connected to reason.

If this is not Haidt’s intention, we nevertheless can dig into the same discussion about how to address and think about morality. We may not immediately be thinking deeply in response to moral stimuli, but individuals can certainly change their habits in how they react over time by thinking consciously about them. I am convinced that if we can change what we think is moral, then we have some degree of choice that affects our “intuitions.” We are now faced, ironically, with a somewhat moral question about morality: “Should we try to rationalize morality as much as possible or just go with whatever we feel like?” Beginning with the next post, I will address questions like this in a series called The Morality of Moral Judgement.