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.