General Thoughts on Epistemology IV: The Difficulty of “Faith”

A man praying at a Japanese Shintō shrine.

First, I don’t want to step on anybody’s beliefs, but, well, here we go. -Brian Regan

Given an understanding of the world based on the scientific method—what I call the “wager” process—there are some tricky things that happen when we try to reconcile the concept of “faith.” In what follows, I will explain why the term is unintelligible unless it is used to describe a situation in which one believes something while ignoring evidence to the contrary.

To reiterate what I have explained in previous entries, the “wager” theory claims that coming to a belief always involves a kind of wager. When a wager is made in gambling, risk is adopted that the wager will fail. The wager is then confirmed or denied when the cards (or what have you) are revealed. In the same way, holding a belief adopts the risk that it will be disproven, and it is confirmed or denied by physical or logical tests.

The Oxford Dictionary defines “faith” as “complete trust or confidence in someone or something.”  The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy breaks it into three broad categories: affectivecognitive, and volitional. The affective component refers to the psychological state or attitude often denoted in the phrase “losing one’s faith.” The cognitive component gets at the epistemic nature of the concept, suggesting that it is an actual cognitive faculty by which we can come to “know” things. It is perhaps most accurately categorized as a kind of belief. The volitional component adds the notion that one can choose whether or not to have “faith”—to accept this special kind of belief. Most of what I will address here are the linguistic aspects of the cognitive component.

There is a basic definition given by the Hebrew bible that has a number of translations. The English Standard version is as follows: “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” (Hebrews 11.1) Within every translation, two recurring elements of “faith” that appear to be essential components are “hope” and a sense of certainty that goes beyond mere belief. First, combining “hope” with “certainty” does not appear to give us any semantic tool that we don’t already have or refer to some mental state that we cannot pinpoint otherwise. Moreover, the two concepts appear to be at odds. Saying that I hope x will occur usually requires that I am uncertain that x will occur. It is often a conscious hedging away from certainty. As aspects of “faith,” they also run into issues on their own.

“Hope” is primarily a stronger form of “desire”. When we hope for something to be the case, we desire for it to happen. If “faith” is another type of desire—a stronger version of “hope” perhaps—then it wouldn’t serve any epistemic purpose whatsoever. My desire for something to happen or be true has nothing at all to do with attempting to discover the actual outcome.

On the other hand, “certainty” does imply an epistemic relation. Use seems to vacillate between having absolute conviction and having a mere strong conviction. “Faith” does appear to have an absolute quality about it, since having only a strong conviction doesn’t quite cut it as a substitute for having faith in most circles. If “faith” is more of an absolute conviction, however, then it begs a series of questions: By what standard is it absolute? And is it ever logically permissible to have such a conviction? And if/when it is permissible, is “faith” a reasonable vehicle to get there?

I haven’t yet seen an acceptable set of answers that suggests “faith” is a helpful and coherent tool in epistemology. Even if one can muster up an adequate description and justification of “absolute” conviction, we are still left with showing how “faith” works and making the case that it is something reasonable to use.

The problem is that there really is no good explanation for how it works. “Faith” is considered quite mysterious, intentionally so. And because reasonable use is contingent upon there being at least some tenable understanding of its function, the chances that faith and reason coincide are slim at best.

There are some attempts to do this, however. One way would be to identify faith as a component of every belief and that it somehow accounts for the gap between our natural state of ignorance and the actions we take. According to this model, every action we take requires an extra push to get us there from our beliefs. But “faith” doesn’t appear to provide any explanatory power here. And once we add the parts we need to describe the basic epistemic process—placing proposition-based wagers and using actions and “intuition pumps” as tests to confirm or deny them—it becomes unnecessary to add any more components.

We could attempt to identify the concept as the same exact thing as making a wager, but for “faith” proponents, this would probably be undesirable, for the element of certainty would be lost in this case. A bet (much like scientific theory) is something that holds strongly to the assumption that its failure is within the realm of possibility. Unless I am mistaken, it is clearly the opposite for matters of faith.

Another attempt would be to note that “faith” is more applicable when deciding whether or not to trust another human being, the thought being that we are so complex and unpredictable, that the only viable option is to take some “leap.” If so, then it would imply that faith and rationality are quite separate, since the assumption is that we cannot predict what will happen with reason.

However, the “wager” theory still acts as an intelligible substitute for this even if we cannot reasonably “predict” what will happen. One can effectively bet on what someone will do and hope that they do it. Nothing more is needed. To use “faith” as a replacement for these two operations still seems to fly in the face of the  certainty requirement. To tack it on as an extra piece of the puzzle seems to either be unintelligible or create a contradiction (being certain and uncertain simultaneously).

There is still one definition for “faith” that fits neatly into this narrative, and that is “to believe a proposition despite evident contradictions.” In this case, “faith” would not be something that is part of the proper epistemic process. It would describe a decisively irrational function by which one may believe certain propositions to be true while ignoring conflicting test results for reasons external to the epistemic process. Although employing “faith” could not be rational on this account, it may still have some positive psychological effects for various people. And it may even bring more happiness to those lives than “proper epistemology” would. Even so, I would not subscribe to it. But that’s just me.

Cosmic Gambling and Decentralization

Pair of Dice

The success of decentralized power is dependent upon our all being cosmic gamblers. Not only that, but this inherent gambling nature is also the reason that there has never been a better alternative.

In other words, people producing things and trading them free of restriction would not be successful if we didn’t have a process of wager-making to drive the way we analyze everything. This may also be the reason why historical attempts to impose control on production and trade have resulted in disaster. Earlier, I explained how I think this “wager” process works. I submit that whenever we form a belief about p, we are betting that p is confirmed. Simultaneously, we adopt the risk that p is shown to be false. Testing to find out when we are wrong is a crucial component of living life because it serves as the primary method by which we discover what works and what doesn’t.

If this is truly the current state of human beings, then it seems that we should want to have society situated to maximize the benefits of this pseudo-scientific process of testing. I propose that the way to maximize it is to adhere to the principle of decentralization — of limiting the restrictions on and forceful interventions in the lives of the people. This way, we can see more results from more individuals who carry on with their tests, expanding the realm of what we consider possible. And ultimately, the innovation that results from this general state of affairs would bring about the greatest degree of prosperity for society relative to the alternatives.

Suppose that I am an entrepreneur and I want to create a start-up company that sells an online platform with which people can record music. When I develop my idea, every single assumption I make is something that I would (literally) be putting my money on. I assume that my future product will be useful to enough musicians to be profitable. I assume that I will be able to successfully market my product to a wide enough audience. I also assume that I can come up with a cost-structure that enough people will be willing accept in order to use my product. Then I can test all those assumptions by, for instance, polling the opinions of a bunch of musicians with regard to what they think about this kind of product.

Remember, this wager-making process isn’t only applicable when developing a start-up. It is the way we test all our beliefs.  Say I want to go see “Man of Steel 2” in theaters, and I observe online that there is a show-time scheduled for 8:10 PM. Based on this information, I can develop a hypothesis that if I go to the theater, buy a ticket, and sit down in the assigned room, I will be able to watch Ben Affleck‘s performance as Batman on the big screen. Then I can go do all those things, look at my watch as it flips over to “8:10” around the same time the pre-movie trailers are starting, and I will be pretty confident that I was right to bet on my assumption.

A political system that promotes this behavior takes a hands-off approach when it comes to intervention in the lives of people. Using coercion to enforce certain regulations as the norm largely prevents people from placing certain wagers and testing them, which is arguably the most important action that benefits society. The more regulation there is, the more limited regular people are in this capacity.

For example, take the issue of occupational licensing. In essence, this is a piece of paper from a state government that gives one permission to work in a certain field. The reasoning behind such certification is usually related to safety. Lawmakers want to make sure that people are qualified so that they will not bring harm to their customers. This sounds great as far as the intentions are concerned, but in practice, the fact that interior designers, shampooers, florists, home entertainment installers, and more work their craft safely without licenses in plenty of different states is evidence that such licensure is unnecessary. What it effectively does is erect obstacles that delay or block entrepreneurs willing to test their ideas. As a result, there are fewer people in each of these fields that can incentivize one another to innovate through competition.

A more poignant example can be found in public schooling. The evidence is overwhelming that the predominantly public K-12 education system in the United States has been failing hard. While there are attempts at innovation, the structures of control are centralized into bureaucratic school boards. As a result, we have administrators — often with very little experience as educators — developing top-down plans to revamp broken systems. Furthermore, standardization seems to take precedence over models in which power is diffuse. The obsession with standardized tests and common core legislation limits the innovation that can take place at the grassroots level.

The best alternatives in the U.S. can currently be found in school choice initiatives like charter schools. These schools are publicly-funded but typically freer of government regulations. The idea is to allow teachers at these schools more room to test their ideas. Moreover, giving students more options to choose between different educational options provides more incentive for teachers to develop effective methods of teaching in order to attract students. Even in Finland, which has strictly public schools, the suggestion is that teachers need flexibility on the ground as opposed to top-down control: “…the public school system’s teachers are trained to assess children in classrooms using independent tests they create themselves. All children receive a report card at the end of each semester, but these reports are based on individualized grading by each teacher.” This hints that the success is not found necessarily in the method of funding, but in the decentralized structure of planning, which frees teachers from regulatory constraints.

The key point here is that central planning is simply antithetical to the wager-making process that is essential to understanding the world around us and thus, bringing about prosperity in society. People will always go about this process. The goal is to foster the conditions under which it can reach its maximum potential. I am convinced that those conditions involve as much decentralization of power as possible, both economic and otherwise.

Reclaiming the Dream

402px-Martin_Luther_King,_Jr._and_Lyndon_JohnsonWhat follows is a guest post by a good friend of mine. In anticipation of President Obama’s speech today, this piece strives to summarize an accurate picture of Dr. King’s moral beliefs and reveal an important contrast with United States foreign policy.

Today, America commemorates the 50th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, during which civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. delivered the iconic “I Have a Dream” speech. From the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, Dr. King’s words boomed across America, piercing the soul of a torn nation. Racial tensions simmered under the surface of American society for centuries, and in 1963 these wounds tore open. Alabama Governor George Wallace started his term by defiantly declaring, “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, and segregation forever!”; thousands of African-Americans – including Dr. King – were arrested during protests organized by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference; Birmingham Public Safety Commissioner Eugene “Bull” Connor unleashed dogs and fire hoses on demonstrators; Civil rights leader Medgar Evers was murdered. Week after week Americans witnessed the horrors of segregation and discrimination play out on their televisions, broadcasting to the world that our professed values of freedom and justice were being systematically denied to the African-American community.

Central to Dr. King’s philosophy was the powerful tool of non-violent resistance. Inspired by Christ and Gandhi, Dr. King believed lasting equality could only be achieved through non-violent means and that the power of love and dignity would always outweigh hate and bitterness. Most importantly, Dr. King’s living and writing highlighted the fallacy of using violence to overcome violence because he believed that when people imitate the immoral actions of their oppressors, even if in self-defense, all moral standing is lost, and a vicious cycle of injustice is perpetuated. After the Montgomery Bus Boycott, Dr. King reflects on the successful power of non-violent resistance:

True pacifism is not unrealistic submission to evil power…Gandhi resisted evil with as much vigor and power as the violent resister, but he resisted with love instead of hate. It is rather a courageous confrontation of evil by the power of love, in the faith that it is better to be the recipient of violence than the inflicter of it, since the latter only multiplies the existence of violence and bitterness in the universe, while the former may develop a sense of shame in the opponent, and thereby bring about a transformation and change of heart…Non-violence resistance [is] one of the most potent weapons available to oppressed people in their quest for social justice.

Dr. King eventually extended this moral vision even further and joined the anti-war movement. While Dr. King’s struggle against oppression and social injustice began here in America, his moral vision extended beyond our borders and he became an outspoken critic of American aggression in the Vietnam War. He saw no moral difference between police brutality on the streets of Montgomery and the massacre in My Lai—between the torture of African-Americans imprisoned in Mississippi and the torture of Vietnamese civilians in the Mekong Delta.

On April 4, 1967, Dr. King delivered a speech at Riverside Church in New York City entitled “A Time to Break Silence,” in which he decried the indiscriminate violence against the people of Vietnam perpetrated by the United States and called for a radical revolution of values in the hearts of the American citizens and policy makers:

The Nobel Prize for Peace was a commission to work harder than I had ever worked before for the brotherhood of man. This is a calling that takes me beyond national allegiances… Beyond the calling of race or nation or creed is this vocation of sonship and brotherhood… A true revolution of values will lay hands on the world order and say of war, ‘This way of settling differences is not just.’ This business of burning human beings with napalm, of filling our nation’s homes with orphans and widows, of injecting poisonous drugs of hate into the veins of peoples normally humane, of sending men home from dark and bloody battlefields physically handicapped and psychologically deranged, cannot be reconciled with wisdom, justice, and love. A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death…We still have a choice today: nonviolent coexistence or violent co-annihilation. We must move past indecision to action. We must find new ways to speak for peace in Vietnam and justice throughout the developing world, a world that borders on our doors. If we do not act, we shall surely be dragged down the long, dark, and shameful corridors of time reserved for those who possess power without compassion, might without morality, and strength without sight.

When Dr. King was criticized for joining the antiwar movement, particularly because critics saw him solely as a civil rights leader, he replied:

I have worked too long now, and too hard to get rid of segregation in public accommodations to turn back to the point of segregating my moral concern. Justice is indivisible. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. And wherever I see injustice, I’m going to take a stand against it whether it’s in Mississippi or in Vietnam.

In this speech we see Dr. King not as an African-American, but as a citizen of the world; his universal moral vision not reserved for a particular political party, race, religion, or country, but for all humanity; his firm convictions transcending the African-American community and embracing the oppressed around the globe.

This call for a world-wide fellowship that lifts neighborly concern beyond one’s tribe, race, class and nation is in reality a call for an all-embracing and unconditional love for all men. This oft misunderstood and misinterpreted concept — so readily dismissed by the Nietzsches of the world as a weak and cowardly force — has now become an absolute necessity for the survival of man. When I speak of love I am not speaking of some sentimental and weak response. I am speaking of that force which all of the great religions have seen as the supreme unifying principle of life…We can no longer afford to worship the god of hate or bow before the altar of retaliation. The oceans of history are made turbulent by the ever-rising tides of hate. History is cluttered with the wreckage of nations and individuals that pursued this self-defeating path of hate.

As we pause to commemorate Dr. King’s dream, it raises the question: What would he say about our current wars and the state of American foreign policy? Would he support the means we’re using to pursue peace, justice, and democracy at home and abroad?

While many of the realities of The War on Terror have been known for years, the extent to which we have lost our humanity was not fully understood until U.S. Army Pfc. Manning released classified material to the website WikiLeaks in 2010—vivid specifics of a U.S. Army Apache helicopter in Iraq firing on a group of civilian journalists, descriptions of torture and imprisonment in Guantanamo Bay, as well as the grueling details of the large number of Iraqi and Afghani civilian casualties. Before commencing a 35-year prison sentence, Manning wrote a letter to President Obama:

In our efforts to meet the risk posed to us by the enemy, we have forgotten our humanity. We consciously elected to devalue human life both in Iraq and Afghanistan. When we engaged those that we perceived were the enemy, we sometimes killed innocent civilians. Whenever we killed innocent civilians, instead of accepting responsibility for our conduct, we elected to hide behind the veil of national security and classified information in order to avoid any public accountability. In our zeal to kill the enemy, we internally debated the definition of torture. We held individuals at Guantanamo for years without due process. We inexplicably turned a blind eye to torture and executions by the Iraqi government. And we stomached countless other acts in the name of our war on terror.

Last month, Dr. Cornel West, an African-American professor at Union Theological Seminary, author, and civil rights advocate was asked to speculate what Dr. King would say on the 50th Anniversary celebration of the March on Washington. Dr. West said:

The irony is…Brother Martin would not be invited to the very march in his name, because he would talk about drones…Do you think anybody at that march will talk about drones and the drone president?… Bush was the capture-and-torture president. Now we’ve got the targeted killing president, the drone president. That’s not progress. That’s not part of the legacy of Martin King… Will the connection between drones, new Jim Crow, prison-industrial complex, attacks on the working class, escalating profits at the top, be talked about and brought together during that march? I don’t hold my breath. But Brother Martin’s spirit would want somebody to push it.

Dr. King frequently criticized US Presidents in his lifetime, even those championing the cause of civil rights. President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and was an ally for the African-American community, yet Dr. King opposed Johnson’s support of the Vietnam War. Similarly, while I believe Dr. King would be proud of our nation for electing an African-American to the highest office in the land, he would not hesitate to condemn the massive violence the administration has perpetuated. His moral principle of non-violent resistance would compel him to once again join hands with those condemning the War on Terror.

I believe Dr. King would speak out against the force feeding of inmates in Guantanamo Bay; the drones buzzing over Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia, dropping bombs on teachers and children; the thousands of American service members who have died in Afghanistan; the thousands more American and NATO soldiers returning without limbs; the American-made tear gas and weapons used against democratic demonstrators in the Middle East. I believe Dr. King’s words would once again boom across our National Mall and echo through our Capitol dome, calling on our leaders to invest not in weapons of violence but in the wellbeing of humanity. I believe Dr. King’s voice would fill the Oval Office, reminding our President that pursuing peace through war will never, in the end, accomplish what he and others hope. It will only breed hate and bitterness.

Above all, I believe Dr. King would call on us to not let divisions of race, religion, creed or nation force us to abandon our humanity; to not let the seeds of hate grow into jungles of violence. I believe he would unwaveringly declare that injustice anywhere is truly a threat to justice everywhere. I believe he would ask us to see that the bullets killing our children in Newtown and Sanford are the same bullets killing children in Kabul and Baghdad; to see that the tears of the widowed military-wife in Yonkers are the same tears of the widows in Yemen; to see that the hopelessness that races through the mind of the young Afghani in Kandahar who straps a bomb to his chest is the same hopelessness in the mind of the returned soldier in Kansas who puts a gun to his head; to see that the citizens stopped and frisked on the streets of New York are the same citizens frisked at checkpoints in Kunduz.

Fifty years ago today, a dream was planted into the collective conscience of our nation, a dream that spoke to the very core of our social ills and global injustices, a dream founded on the idea of rejecting aggression and courageously confronting evil with the power of love. Once this moral philosophy is applied consistently at home and abroad, we can build a world Dr. King would be proud of.

President Barack Obama tours the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial in Washington, D.C., Oct. 14, 2011. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

Emotional Control Through Rational Thought (Learning How to be a Robot)

Contrary to what may be inferred by the title of this post, I do not think an individual can immediately decide to feel a certain way about such and such in opposition to an initial feeling. Even if it is possible, I do not think it is something easily accomplished. I do think, however, that an individual can condition oneself to react emotionally in one way or another over time.

One way to think about this is to examine Aristotle’s view, in which he divides the soul into three categories. The first amounts to what plants are capable of, basic nourishment and reproduction. The second level is that of animals who have the power of locomotion and perception. The third is the human level, which introduces the intellect (reason, rationality, or what have you). He uses this context in order to explain how one should live a eudiamonic (or the best kind of) life. His belief is that it is virtuous to utilize one’s rational capabilities to the fullest, and at the same time, one must exhibit self-control when dealing with the lower-level functions of life like appetite and emotion.

This may not be the most detailed or accurate way to categorize life considering our modern-day understanding, but there are a few reasoned observations that suggest that Aristotle is on to something: 1) The human capacity for rational thought, or something similar, is probably the essential characteristic that makes humans different from other life-forms on this planet. 2) The use of logic through our rational thought allows us to come to accurate conclusions about the world around us. 3) Rational conclusions can be overturned by emotional desires and vice versa. 4) Humans have the capability to change how rational thought and emotion are involved in their thought processes.

IF all this is pretty much true; and IF humankind is the most advanced form of life in existence; and IF there is an aristotelian “eudiamonic” life to be had, then MAYBE we should all aspire to become robots. These are some big “if’s” of course, hence the use of all caps… but no, I don’t actually advocate that we all aspire to become robots (right now anyway). Why? Human functioning is actually way more complex than what any robot can do. It is complex enough that we cannot yet replicate it by artificial means. I would advocate that people spend more time on “logic-based thought” than “emotional thought,” however. Why? Because I think it does more good for the world.

Whatever degree of utility that emotion plays in human thought processes, there is no denying that it takes relatively little time for most people to have emotional thoughts. Emotions are reactionary by nature. They are an automatic response that our bodies have to certain stimuli. We typically have very little control over these reactions, as they are hard-wired into our brains. Often they are explained as evolutionary survival mechanisms and thought to rise primarily from the limbic system. They explicitly fall into the category of non-rational functioning.

Rationality, on the other hand, is characterized by conscious and deliberate thought processes. To reason about something is considered an exercise in human agency. We are doing it on purpose, and we have control. Its function is essentially to discover truth by logically analyzing our observations. Processes in this category like differentiation and determining causal relations occur in the frontal lobe. I am of the impression that an individual can use rational processes like these to alter emotional processes.

Because emotions are closely tied to memory via the limbic system, I think the first step toward effective emotional control is to recognize the causal patterns of behavior. It would be prudent to analyze the typical triggers that cause associated emotional memories to fire. The goal should be to pinpoint the exact underlying causes that elicit the feeling. Sometimes it can be difficult when they are suppressed, but this is what your frontal lobe is there for. Taking the time to consciously face some of these issues might also require courage, but I don’t know how to help people with courage. Just don’t be a weenie I guess.

The second step would be to learn how to counteract the emotional reaction brought on by the trigger. There are many ways to do this, but I strongly advise against ignoring the emotion if your goal is long-term control. The objective of this step is to create emotional memories that override and replace the current ones. This can be done through introspection, external exposure, or a combination of the two. For example, suppose that I fear speaking in public. One thing I can do is to expose myself to situations in which there is more pressure to speak, like taking a speech class. Perhaps I can create a parallel scenario in which I am speaking in front of friends as if I were speaking in public. These are very common remedies to a common problem.

One uncommon method, though, is to use introspection. A solution can be found through creating a new perspective for oneself by thinking about the different possible outcomes. The practice could involve imagining worst case scenarios — those which would be most feared — and reconstructing the feeling in one’s mind. Doing this regularly may “wear the feeling out,” and the individual can better accept the emotion, making its effect negligible. Another option is to contrast the trigger situations with other situations that are far worse, creating a logical connection that will eliminate the reaction. Eventually it is possible for the subject to adopt the perspective of the indifferent observer: “So what?”

There isn’t really a third step.

If there were though, it would probably be to practice doing this until you become a really well-adjusted person.

…Or if your dream is to become a robot, then have at it.

Optimus Prime

Optimus Prime (Photo credit: Devin.M.Hunt)

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.